-Jason Davis

If you haven't noticed by now, we weren't able to get an American Soccer Show out this week. I was otherwise detained on a freelance job covering a youth tournament in Richmond, my first such experience. My apologies on the lack of a podcast, and I do realize that the timing is rather terrible considering the MLS season starts tonight.

I'm in the midst of shifting my brain from youth soccer back to the professional game, but while the process clunks its way to completion like a Apple IIC reading a 5 1/4 floppy disk, I thought I would share some thoughts on my experience at the Jefferson Cup.

Let's properly frame the scope of this tournament, because while some of you know exactly what I'm talking about, others that haven't been exposed to the world of high-level youth soccer might not have an appreciation for everything it entails. This particular tournament is massive. 200+ teams compete at multiple sites (I myself hit three of them, but I believe there was at least one more) over three days. Each site has numerous fields, and there's always a game happening. At one point, I was tracking three games. My head threatened to spin off my body more than once.

There are college coaches dotting the sidelines, always on the look out for talent that might be worth recruiting. These men are easily identifiable by their hats and jackets stamped with the name of their respective schools and by the highly engineered, lightweight folding chairs (though some couldn't really be called "chairs") they bring along to sit in while best positioned to take in a match. I would have trouble recalling all of the schools I saw represented over the course of two days if I tried, but some of the more noteworthy among them included Duke, Wake Forest, Villanova, Cincinnati, and the two eastern service academies. As one of my colleagues aptly described it, this was a "meat market."

And there are no illusions about that. At the U16 and U17 levels, the games are simply showcases for players to be seen by scouts. Clubs print up brochures - some of them very detailed and obviously costly - and have parents hand them out to the gathered college coaches. In a few cases, coaches will watch certain games because a player has contacted them directly, hoping to be recruited. Teams are out to win, but they're also out to find scholarships for their players. Very, very few of the kids out there, whether they have already found a college program with which to play or if they still hope to catch a coaches eye, will become professional. Youth soccer, even with the good teams and big clubs involved in the Jefferson Cup, isn't really about turning kids into pros. It's about feeding the college system.

Not that there weren't professional clubs represented in Richmond. One world famous club had their American scout on hand, who I saw strolling with the former head coach of an MLS team (who always works for the club)*. It helps that the scout lives in Richmond and that his club had a relationship with the organizers of the tourney (a youth soccer club called the Richmond Strikers), but he was there nonetheless, taking in matches at the U14 and lower levels. While I can't be sure he wasn't also out at matches for the older age groups, I tend to doubt it. There's a separation there; while the college coaches are mostly looking for players to recruit one or two years out, a professional club (particularly the one represented) is only interested in players it still has time to mold. Sixteen and 17 year olds are already too far gone to be worth any real investment.

If I made the effort, I could probably churn out a couple thousand words on everything I saw this weekend. From the coaches (both good and bad) to the behavior of the parents, to the quality of the officiating (mostly bad), watching the machine at full throttle was a enlightening experience. It's one thing to be aware that this stuff exists, and to be forced to acknowledge it as part of the American soccer structure intellectually as a fan and commentator on the professional game. It's another to see it first hand, where it becomes even clearer that it is its own encapsulated world, with only a tenuous connection the rest of the American soccer universe.

Despite the raw, bucket-of-ice-water nature of the experience, I left town on Sunday mostly encouraged by what I saw. There was certainly a lot of hustle soccer, hoof and chase tactics that involved an over-reliance on speed and athleticism. But there were also teams that did everything they could to keep the ball on the grounds, play smartly, and break down defenses through guile and cunning rather than brawn. Even among the teams playing the traditional "American" brand of the game, a few stood out as having more to offer than you might expect. It was too much about speed and strength, but not to the point of being depressing.

The last game I took covered before bolting for home (I was really, really tired) was the U14 final between a club from Columbia, South Carolina and one from St. Louis**. The St. Louis club won 2-0, though it was hardly about that for me. The scoreline almost didn't matter; though I tracked the ebb and flow of the game for reporting purposes, I was mostly fascinated by the approach of the St. Louis coach. He rarely screamed. He almost never called out instructions indicative of a coach who just wanted to win. Mostly, he was teaching.

On numerous occasions, I heard him say things like "two touch" and "composure." When a center back hit a long ball towards a forward when he still had space, he moaned "Why!?". His demeanor wasn't of a club soccer coach looking to improve his name or win a trophy, but of a soccer coach intent teaching good soccer.  Even when his team was absorbing massive amounts of pressure, he continued to implore them to keep possession, pass the ball quickly and find space to move into.

The best part is that his kids were good, technically sound, listened (mostly), and never lost their heads. Only once did I hear a St. Louis player yell at his teammates, and only to compel them be calm on the ball. That word "composure" was their mantra. Panic wasn't a problem, because they never did.

It wasn't always easy for them, and they didn't waltz to their victory. After the St. Louis team scored early (a nice goal from the top of the box, one-timed after a lovely pull-back pass from the left wing) and dominated the first half, the South Carolinians managed to find their feet in the second. They were stronger, certainly faster, and had a few players with eyebrow-twitching (as opposed to eyebrow-raising) talent. They went after it, threatened to score on multiple occasions, hit the underside of the crossbar and the post, and somehow managed to miss an easy chance on the doorstep late in the game. They were without a doubt a solid team.

Their coach, a Brit, yelled a lot. Some of it was constructive, most of it was not. Having watched him for just that one match it wouldn't be fair for me to judge him as a coach, but I can't say I have a good impression of his abilities. Meanwhile, his American assistant was a total joke, yelling out instructions that boggled the mind and throwing tantrums over a perceived lack of hustle on the part of the players. The contrast in coaching styles (there was no assistant with the St. Louis team, by the way) was stark. The team from Columbia was desperate to win because taking home a Jefferson Cup trophy would bolster their club's reputation (this is not a guess - I overheard the coach pointing that fact out to his players). The St. Louis side, while surely wanting the victory, clearly had having their kids play good soccer at the top of their priority list.

Afterwards, the St. Louis coach told me that the club aims to have its teams play like Arsenal. Obviously that's a lofty goal, and a nice thing to say when a reporter asks you about club philosophy. If I hadn't seen the evidence of that effort myself, I might have been filled with cynical doubt. As it was, I took the statement in with a nod and a grin, happy to have something a positive on which to end my first elite youth soccer tournament experience.

There's bad, and plenty of it, in the way youth club soccer operates in the United States. The pay for play model is inherently unfair, elitist, and exclusionary. A win at all costs mentality infects most levels. Money is at the heart of almost everything, charlatans with accents are too numerous, and players are tactically and technically deficient by the time they reach college age.

But there's talent, lots of it actually, and there are clubs with encouraging approaches teaching players good habits. We can moan and whine about the bad in the system, a construct that is too entrenched and massive to be fundamentally changed, or we can highlight the good, hopefully spreading the approach to others clubs that are always eager to copy success. In the end, the best thing that could ever happen to American soccer is for clubs like the St. Louis one I saw on Sunday to win while playing the game the right way.

I'm crossing my fingers.

*Most of you can probably guess who I'm referring to, and if you can't, a Google search should help you figure it out.

**The club is called St. Louis Scott Gallagher and counts Tim Ream among its alumni. 

Also, I should note that I did not see any clubs at the U16 or U17 levels that are part of the US Soccer Development Academy system, which I'm told is already a level beyond the best that was on display in Richmond. That's a good sign. 

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