Some thoughts on cleats

Some parents have asked for my thoughts on soccer cleats given the wide range of brands, designs, quality, and cost out there. Of all the pieces of equipment cleats are obviously the single most important. Pretty much everything your child does during practices and games focuses on the feet, so my suggestion is to invest a little in good, well-fitting cleats.

Right now I think that for youth the Adidas Ace 15.3 FG AG J cleat has a very good balance between cost and performance. This cleat costs around $55, but please see my suggestion at the end of this post about how to save some money if you can time the purchase.

The ~$50 to ~$60 price range has been consistent for me over the years. There is absolutely no reason to spend more than this at the youth level. For example, Adidas also sells a Messi 15.1 cleat for $100. Not worth it in my view.

I would also not go significantly below that $50 price point. Adidas and Nike sell kids cleats for $20 or $30, but the quality of those cleats in terms of fit, weight, and foot support drops too much in my view. And the material doesn’t give enough ‘feel’ on the ball.

Also keep in mind that cleats have different stud lengths. In our Bay Area I recommend you go with FG (Firm Ground) studs. Note that the above Adidas Ace shoe has a new FG/AG hybrid stud design with different stud lengths to accommodate both firm ground grass surfaces (FG) and artificial turf surfaces (AG). The image above shows what this hybrid looks like.

The best time to buy a cleat is when the $50/$60 cleat is on sale to clear inventory for the new model (which is often just a new design without significant performance improvements). At that point you can often get that ~$55 cleat for ~$30. I then tend to buy at least one size that fits and then the next two half-sizes up. It’s a great deal and I have them at home ready to go for when my son/daughter suddenly says how tight their cleats are.

So, my rule of thumb is to focus on correctly sized firm ground (FG) Adidas or Nike cleats in the $50 to $60 price range and then wait for price reductions to snap up a couple of sizes of that cleat for (almost) half price.

The state of U.S. Soccer – food for thought

I came across this blog post today describing in strong words the state of soccer development in our country. Food for thought. Here’s an excerpt:

“Landon Donovan is painfully shallow and naïve calling for Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing if USMNT loses to Mexico in upcoming CONCACAF matchup. Firing Jurgen is akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Despite a player pool and youth pipeline chock-full of mediocrity, Jurgen has the highest winning percentage of USMNT coaches.

If the feeder USMNT pool/pipeline (MLS, college, and USSDA) is serious about success, it must genuinely look within to fix the problem and not symptoms, or to quiet dissent from the USMNT coach.

It’s without question the USMNT is an average team at the stronger World Cup international level, while dominant at the regional CONCACAF level against the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, El Salvador, et al.

If Jurgen were shown the door and a new coach unveiled, there would have to be a corresponding seismic change in how we approach youth development, USSDA, college, and professional soccer.

Any change in coaching absent this would be in name alone. The underlying structure would be untouched as it has been since Sampson, Arena, and Bradley were at the helm of the USMNT.

To seriously have a chance to compete with the world’s elite in a generation or two, the men in charge (Gulati at USSF and Garber at MLS) must immediately lay the groundwork and scrap the historically ineffective system. A total bottoms-up revamp is required. No sacred cows. No gatekeeper status quo yes men to redesign it. Look for fresh ideas, benchmarks from European and South American gold standards.

Find alternatives to pay-to-play, rethink college soccer, reassess USSDA, implement pro/rel, find ways to expand the pyramid, establish a preferred style of play and supporting player ID and development philosophy and the coaching to execute it. Decentralize MLS and turn it into a club-oriented league. Synchronize with the international league calendar.

Drastic times call for drastic action. Think of how Germany and Spain fundamentally reinvented themselves.”

Klinsmann in 2010. Just as relevant today.

“Our dysfunctional developmental system emphasizes club soccer and the chase for college scholarships over true longer-term professional development. This is the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down. You pay for having your kid play soccer because your goal is to get a college scholarship, which is the complete opposite in the rest of the world.”

My personal view is that sports and academics don’t fit well together, especially for soccer given that it’s a truly international sport. College soccer is NOT a good place for a 18 or 19 year old to become a world-class player. Education is good in principle, of course, but it has nothing to do with honing the young player’s soccer craft to an elite level.

So boys that have the potential to become professional players are at a fork in the road – they have to chose the academic route or the professional soccer route, like in the rest of the world. You can’t do both and expect to reach international standards. As simple as that.

To be clear, getting a college scholarship and the academic credentials that goes with that is a fine goal, of course, but it also means that this top youth player almost certainly won’t be able to fulfill their potential as a soccer player.

And that is a reasonable trade off, of course, especially since only a small percentage of top youth players that pursue professional soccer careers end up making enough money to support themselves during their lifetime.

For girls it’s different in my view. The college route is good for even elite girls because it gives them a better starting point after their soccer careers are over. Unfortunately, women’s professional soccer will almost certainly never be able to generate enough financial return for the players because there isn’t enough money in women’s soccer. And that’s a delicate topic for a future post…

Quick passing isn’t enough

Some of my recent posts describe my concerns about too much focus on ‘quick passing & moving’ at too young an age. Coaches are trying to copy the Barcelona style of possession play and many parents are happy to see lots of passes being strung together and tend not to like the player who doesn’t pass quickly.

But I’m concerned that this leads to one-dimensional soccer and doesn’t give the players what they need to creatively solve problems during games against strong, tactically smart opposition.

I am concerned that we are not emphasizing enough a critical part of youth player development: creativity, technical skills, and risk taking, that, when later combined with smart passing and fast movement, leads to top-level, entertaining soccer.

So take a look at this clip from Barcelona’s youth academy. These are ten or eleven year old boys. Watch carefully the many skills and soccer IQ used just in these ten seconds. Their toolkit is large already!

Creative, instinctive, entertaining

One family’s spending on youth soccer

CLICK HERE for a sobering article on the money (and time) spent on competitive youth soccer by one family near Sacramento.

Typical annual spending: $17,000. Tournaments in places like San Diego and Santa Cruz. Sound familiar?

Book Recommendation: Das Reboot

Here’s the well-researched story on how German soccer reinvented itself to finally win the World Cup again last year:

Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World

Surely some insights we could apply here in the U.S.?

The relative age effect

We are probably all aware of the relative age effect in competitive soccer, but you might not be aware of how strong this effect is.

Below is some interesting data for the U15B National Team courtesy @24x7soccerus. Note that this is typical of all age groups here in the US and also in Europe.

u15bnt

However, it’s interesting to note that the relative age effect is weak for elite female players (ECNL) as the below presentation from US Youth Soccer shows.

CLICK HERE for US Youth Soccer presentation on the relative age effect. Data for both U.S. and Europe, male and female players.

CLICK HERE for Help, My Child is a Late Bloomer: 5 Tips for Overcoming the “Relative Age Effect” in Youth Sports

What’s in your toolkit?

One of the themes on my blog is concern with an over-emphasis on quick passing and systems of play on youth teams, especially when other aspects such as dribbling, creativity, and risk taking aren’t also encouraged.

Last weekend I was able to observe an example of this up-close as a referee during a U14G NorCal NPL game between two local rivals.

The stronger team used a system of play focusing on possession through quick passing and movement. Think ‘FC Barcelona’, but with an important missing ingredient that I will get to later in this post.

The weaker team, knowing their opponent’s strength and style of play, used a classic counterattacking 4-4-2 formation, sat deep, and worked hard to press at the right moments, intercept passes, block passing lanes, and prevent shots on goal from near the edge of the penalty area. Their objective was to patiently work to intercept the opponent’s passing game in their own half and then quickly counterattack using one or two fast forwards.

The weaker team did well tactically and worked hard to prevent the stronger team from creating clear chances until the last five minutes of the game when one mistake by the central defender and a well-timed run and pass led to a goal for the stronger team. The game ended 1:0 for the stronger team.

Is this 1:0 win a good result? Some observations:

  • the game could easily have ended 0:0 if it wasn’t for that one mistake – I do not recall another clear chance.
  • the weaker team did not have a fast striker and/or fast left or right forward to truly mount a credible counterattack (the coach confirmed this weakness to me during a break in the game). Add one or two of those and the weaker team might well have scored a goal or two.
  • there was no creativity, dribbling, technical skills on the stronger team that could have created additional scoring opportunities – it was basically only quick passing and movement; the toolkit seemed limited
  • the weaker team is their club’s second team (EGSL), the stronger team is the club’s top team (ECNL) – the gap between a top team and a second team is typically considerable at this age. It should have been easier for the top team to win.
  • how likely is it that the stronger team would have won against competition of equal rank (i.e. ECNL)?

Teams can’t just rely on a system of play and hope to eventually out-pass and/or out-run strong opposition. Teams need a larger toolkit than that. Teams have to be multi-dimensional to be able to overcome different kinds of opponents and game situations.

So when we try to emulate the FC Barcelona style of play on our youth teams let’s make sure we don’t just pick one part of their toolkit – the possession/quick passing aspect of their game. Let’s make sure we also include the creativity, technical skills, dribbling, and risk taking that players such as Messi, Neymar, and Iniesta often use effectively to overcome opponents that sit deep waiting to counterattack.

Our youth players need to learn which parts of a larger toolkit to use depending on what problems they need to solve during a game. And they will often make the wrong decisions, which is fine if it helps them learn and become better players over time.

And it might not be each youth player on a team needing a larger toolkit – it might only be a handful of creative players, but the team needs to be encouraged to use creative problem solving.

It surely can’t just be fixed roles and “pass quicker!”.

Good travel chair

GCI Outdoor Quik-E-Seat foldedIf you’re looking for a lighter-weight travel chair I can recommend the GCI Outdoor Quik-E-Seat. You can get it through Amazon HERE for ~$35.

I find these lighter chairs very useful during tournaments, especially travel tournaments. I carried mine onto the plane to Surf Cup in San Diego, for example.

The challenge with these lighter chairs is to find one that is relatively light yet also sturdy enough to survive a couple of seasons. I had a couple before this that were lighter than this one, but those broke within a couple of months.

I also tend to look for a back support that this one has. Adds a little weight and bulk, but it’s worth it in my view.

Does anyone have any other recommendations? Please share in comments below. Thank you!

Soccer replacing American football due to brain damage and injury risks?

Related to my post about the role of headgear in soccer to prevent concussions, here’s a NPR and a New York Times news story from yesterday about an increasing number of school districts canceling American football due to high injury risk, especially brain damage, and replacing it with soccer:

CLICK HERE for NPR’s Missouri High School Joins Others In Canceling Football Program

CLICK HERE for NYT’s As Worries Rise and Players Flee, a Missouri School Board Cuts Football

When I first watched the below Frontline report on brain damage in American football I immediately thought about what this might be doing to kids that practice and play american football from a young age and over many years, and what all this might mean for the future of the sport.

Violent impacts on the body and the brain are simply part of the sport and I can’t see how, realistically, it can be made safe enough to be played by kids (and adults for that matter).

And if an increasing number of parents decide that American football is not worth the risk of longer-term brain damage for their kids then one obvious alternative team sport is soccer. This should bode well for the continue growth of soccer in our country.

If you want to learn more about brain injuries in American football and the cover-up by the NFL check out Frontline’s report League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.

Does protective headgear help?

The risk of concussions in sports has become an increasingly important topic over the years. American football is facing a crisis in this area, triggered by a recent Frontline documentary (click here to watch), but other sports have to look closely at concussions too.

While not nearly as violent as American football, soccer is nevertheless classified as a high- to moderate-intensity contact sport. The good news is that this contact rarely involves the head, but heading the ball during a game is common and there are times when players challenging for an incoming ball will knock heads together. Another way to get a concussion is when a player’s body suddenly and violently changes direction after an impact with another player. In these cases the head can snap backwards or sideways, which causes the brain to impact the skull and hence possibly lead to a concussion.

One very recent authoritative study (click here) completed a retrospective analysis of data collected from mid-2005 through mid-2014 in a large, nationally representative sample of boys and girls who were high school soccer players. Overall, around 500 concussions were sustained by each gender during around 1.5 million games and practices. (This is arguably encouragingly low, but I suspect that many concussions went un-diagnosed and/or un-reported.).

By far the most common cause of concussions in soccer is a head-to-head (or head-to-elbow) collision. The second most common cause of concussions is when a ball strikes a player’s head, BUT only when a player was hit in the head by a ball kicked from close range such as an attempted shot on goal. The player simply did not have time to react and the ball might impact more vulnerable areas such as the temple. It’s important to note that concussions from simply heading a ball are rare.

So, naturally, we as parents might be tempted to force our kids to wear protective headgear such as the Full90 product. Some padding on the head should help, right?

Well, turns out that these kinds of headgear appear to offer no measurable protection against concussions and might actually increase the risk because players apparently tend to play more aggressively with headgear.

That said,  I suspect that this isn’t necessarily so for every personality type. For example, ‘softer’ kids might not change their behavior whereas more naturally athletic/aggressive kids might well step it up even more.

I have listed below a number of articles I found especially informative, but you MUST definitely watch the following ten-minute NBC News report in its entirety: CLICK HERE.

The risk of injury, including potentially suffering one or more concussions over the years, is unavoidable in contact sports. Maybe future equipment and, possibly, rules modifications will help reduce this risk, but as parents and players we have to accept this as part of the risk/reward decision we have to make.

Disclaimer: please keep in mind that I’m not a doctor nor scientific researcher. Just a dad sharing his personal observations. Please also note that this post focuses on concussions and not on other types of injuries such as bruising or scrapes.

Additional background reading:

Can Headgear Halt Soccer Concussions?

Use of headgear at recent Women’s World Cup

Helmets for soccer? Why some parents are saying no thanks.

Review of Full90 Headgear

Soccer Headgear: Does It Do Any Good?

The Efficacy of Soccer Headgear

How can we keep young soccer players safe?

Penalty! Obviously!

Here’s a perfect example from one of my games this weekend why something that might look so obvious to coaches and players on the team bench and parents on the sideline is actually far from obvious:

The game was a U17G NorCal NPL game between two top nationally ranked teams.

At least a dozen players were in the penalty box near the goal when an attacking player received the ball close to the goal post. She was facing the sideline on the parents’ side (who were sitting in stadium bleachers about 30 yards away from the sideline), her back was facing the goal, which was maybe 5 yards behind her. The goal line was about 2 yards to her right. She had a defender on her back preventing her from turning to face goal. This defender was, naturally and legally, putting some physical pressure on her back. The attacker had no other obvious passing/lay-off options because her teammates were covered by defenders.

The attacker suddenly fell forward (but not in a dramatic fashion like Arjen Robben in the image above…it was much more subtle) and the defender then fell on top of her.

Guess what the attacking team’s coach, players, and parents thought this was from ~75 yards away?

Well, I was around 10 yards away and had the perfect 90 degree angle and it was clear to me that the attacking player was trying to get a cheap penalty decision. She flopped forward, surprising both me and the defender behind her, which made the defender fall forward on top of the attacker – she wasn’t anticipating the sudden loss of resistance from the attacking player’s body.

While the coaches, players, and parents complained about the ‘obvious’ referee mistake (“how can you not call this penalty kick, ref??”) I went over to the attacking player and said “nice try”, in response to which she smiled/smirked for a second, composed herself, and then protested her innocence. In fact, I could have yellow-carded her for unsporting behavior and, in hindsight, probably should have to send a clear signal about what I saw.

There was no doubt in my mind that she intentionally flopped forward to try to get a penalty kick. Keep in mind that body contact and some degree of nudging/shoving/shielding using the body and arms is acceptable in soccer. Players have to learn to deal with that as they get older and play through it. The referee has to determine whether any of this contact infringes on the laws of the game while taking factors such as age and level of play into account.

And in the large majority of cases the difference between a flop forward and a foul justifying a penalty kick can only be determined up-close and with the right viewing angle. It can be a fine line sometimes, of course.

It is a scientific fact that the human eye cannot see the required subtleties of an event such as the above from 50 to 75 yards away. The human eye will see the high-level outcome (e.g. the player fell) and the brain will then attempt to fill in the gaps by creating the illusion of certainty based on personal preferences, emotions, similar past observed occurrences, etc., but it’s impossible to know what really happened unless you are close to the action.

Please keep in mind that the referee is in by far the best position to make this judgement call. Referees will make mistakes, but he/she is by far the closest to the action, has the experience and training, and is the least emotionally vested in the outcome of the game to increase the odds that the right decision is made for the good of the game.

The drama of filling referee slots for weekend games

Following on from yesterday’s NorCal email about respect for referees I wanted to share the below background that very few coaches and parents are probably aware of.

There is a LOT of behind-the-scenes volunteer work every week by referee assignors such as Tibor, Dana, Allen, Scott, and Filippo to make sure games can happen as scheduled.

Because of the big shortage of referees many referees often volunteer to officiate 3 to 6 games per day on weekends. That’s a total of up to a dozen games per weekend. My wife has threatened divorce on more than one occasion already ;-).

Here’s a sampling of typical emails from the referee assignors in one area (just MVLA/Red Star/Force/SASC/West Valley, not the entire Bay Area):

Wednesday evening: “This is a blast email to all referees: We have a number of open slots for this weekend, so can you please log in and pick up a game or two in addition to what you have already signed up for?”

Thursday afternoon: “Referees – Where are you? It is Thursday night and there are still around 100 referee slots ready for you to pick up for this weekend. Take another look and fill your schedule.”

Thursday night: “Hello Referees – Hate to say it but we probably have a new record for a Thursday evening – 57 open Centers and 85 AR slots.”

Friday afternoon: “Hello Guys, I know that all the assignors are looking for help. But if you have a break between games and you want to help me, I’ll be very happy.”

Friday night: “Guys, this is the last call. I’m giving up, it’s too stressful. The are still some open slots available. Thanks for your support and help.”

Friday (10pm): “You guys cut Thursday’s number at least 1/3, it’s now 29 CR and 50 AR. Still an extraordinary amount for Friday, so highest priority is FILL THE Centers! Please look at your schedule and help these kids have a successful match.”

Saturday morning: “We still have games with no center referees. Can you help?”

Sunday: “HELP!!!!!!!! TODAY!!!!!”

So it goes pretty much every week. You can probably imagine what happens on weekends that also have tournaments.

So, unfortunately, for all practical intents and purposes the choice isn’t between a “poor/inexperienced” and a “good” referee. The choice is often between “any referee” and “no game”.

IMG_0917

Please keep this in mind next time your game is being officiated by a 60+ year old referee who can’t move as well anymore or an inexperienced one or someone who doesn’t quite read the game too well or someone who is recovering from the flu or simply someone who is fatigued from having officiated four games already that hot, sunny day.

2013-YouthRefs

And that 14 year old assistant referee running the line might be inexperienced, but he/she is volunteering to help make sure your game can take place at all. And we need these youngsters to gain experience while also enjoying it to make sure we add to our pool of referees over time.

All this is clearly far from ideal and it can be frustrating for coaches, players, and parents that put a lot of physical and emotional energy into games, but for the good of the game please keep the above in mind on game day. It will make for a much better time for everyone, especially for the kids on the field.

Over-coaching creating clones?

Dennis Bergkamp, one of the recent global stars (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Bergkamp) and a product of Ajax’s youth program, compares the coaching of his youth to what he sees today:

“If I look at my coaches during my youth at Ajax, with all due respect they were two elderly men who would stand at the side of the pitch, shouting a few things. So in a way you create your own career, you create your own development, and that helps you later on. Whereas now there are a lot of coaches, everyone has got their badge, they all think they are Mourinho or Wenger, even with the 12- to 13-year-olds.

“They know exactly what to do, what kind of exercises they have to do with the kids, and in a way they [the kids] don’t have to think for themselves any more. It is all done for them. It’s a problem because they [the kids] don’t think for themselves.

“If they [the kids] get a new situation, they look to someone as if to say, ‘What do I have to do now?’ I believe that is over-coaching. It’s too much. Let them have their freedom. You have to create the environment where they can be unique and not a clone.”

Today’s soccer landscape (in Europe and here) is different than it was back when Bergkamp was young, of course. Many of the changes in youth coaching were for the better, including the types of drills and the more rigorous certification of coaches that he refers to. But I think his main point about players having no individuality, no creativity is worth keeping in mind.

At a fundamental level, players are faced with an ongoing series of problems to solve during games and the question is are we developing players that can solve those problems creatively and effectively without having to fall back on ‘just’ systems of play or something they were shown before repeatedly by their coaches. Can they improvise? Are they willing to take (smart) risks? How big is their toolkit, their bag of tricks?

Clones (using Bergkamp’s words) typically only solve the more obvious problems and don’t make for entertaining soccer, the lifeblood of the game.

Message from NorCal about referee abuse

The following message was emailed to all clubs, teams, coaches, players, and parents today:

The NorCal Board of Directors is concerned about the issue of sportsmanship and, specifically, referee abuse within soccer. Quite simply, it is unacceptable for any coach, player or parent to verbally or physically abuse referees, players or any other person involved in a soccer match – or at any other time for that matter!

Although the vast majority of games take place without incident, in the first three weeks of the season, NorCal Premier Soccer has seen three cases of referee assault referred to US Club Soccer. Last weekend alone, we saw 19 red cards for violent conduct or abusive behavior. Following this uptick in referee abuse and red card reports, we have moved swiftly, with US Club Soccer support, to address these incidents in the following manner:

  • The NorCal Board of Directors will be notified immediately about any cases of violent behavior;
  • Clubs, with coaches, players or parents involved in cases of violence or abuse will be placed on immediate probation – until the investigation is complete;
  • Coaches, players, parents and in some cases, entire teams, involved in violent conduct, will be suspended immediately;
  • During the probation period, any further offenses committed by any coach, player or parent of that club will lead to an immediate examination of the clubs’ continued membership in NorCal Premier; and
  • The NorCal Board of Directors will decide, with US Club Soccer, what further sanctions are needed for the club, coach, team, player or parent involved in the incident.

Obviously, each individual is responsible for their own actions, however, within NorCal Premier Soccer and US Club Soccer, clubs also are responsible for the behavior of coaches, players and parents during all matches.

We maintain an unwavering belief in club soccer’s positive role in creating moments when valuable lessons can be learned; winning and losing, teamwork, cooperation, and hard work. We also maintain a firm belief that mistakes are an important part of this process, certainly a big part of every game and all involved in soccer. Players, coaches, referees and parents will make them – so expect and deal with them appropriately. When mistakes are made and emotions run high, a coach must be a positive role model and demand that parents and players follow suit.

We know most soccer clubs expect all of their members to behave in a sportsmanlike manner at all times and many achieve that goal – for that we applaud you. We request that all clubs share this letter with your teams, coaches, parents and players prior to your next game to ensure they clearly understand the sportsmanship expected of them and the consequences awaiting their club, coach, team, and individuals should they step outside the normal boundaries of soccer behavior.

Finally, we believe that Soccer is the greatest sport in the world, and violence and abuse has no place in the beautiful game. Please assist us to ensure your club, team and community stand vigilant against this type of behavior and help us remove it from our game.

Thank you,

NorCal Board of Directors

Respect for the referee in rugby

If these big guys can respect the referee this much then why can’t we have the same in soccer? Just a thought.

Click here for clip from the Rugby World Cup.

The day perfect soccer arrived

I still remember watching this game in stunned silence. I have never before and since felt this way watching a game. I was simply mesmerized. The movements, the passing, the pressing, the speed, the skills, the finishing, the passion, the beauty of the game. It was all there in these perfect 90 minutes in November, 2010, against Real Madrid.

This was Barcelona probably at their peak and the day they arguably delivered perfect soccer. This clip just shows highlights, but to really appreciate the Barcelona performance on this day you need to watch the entire game.

Positive coach behavior last weekend

A friend of mine shared the below from his daughter’s U15 game last weekend. It is likely that the come-from-behind victory wouldn’t have been possible if the coach and the parents had started complaining too much about the referee. The girls most likely wouldn’t have focused on playing the game and instead would have become increasingly emotionally wrapped up in the “injustice of it all”. Pervasive negative energy from coaches and parents definitely affects player performance on the field.

The coach was smart and positive – great job! Very different from the experience I wrote about here: A Coach’s Tirade.

“On Saturday I watched Carissa’s U15 team get questionable calls for offsides and fouls against them, dictated by the CR (the ARs sometimes looked surprised at the offsides calls that they themselves didn’t make). I think the ref was doing the best he could, but the calls were pretty poor (some of the other team’s parents also agreed with me).

I thought the best part was that her coach did not get upset and simply accepted the calls as part of the game and told the girls to try and ignore the poor calls and play through them. In the end, Carissa’s team came from behind to win 2-1. No yelling from the parents, coaches or players – just accept poor/questionable calls as part of the game and move on.”

[Thank you, David, for sharing!]

“Handball” – the rule everyone thinks they understand

One of the most common misconceptions is that any contact between the ball and the hand/arm is an infringement. Players, parents, and coaches are quick to call “handball, ref!” and get upset at the ‘obvious’ refereeing mistake, especially in the penalty box when a ‘handball’ can lead to a penalty kick. “Come on referee! Are you [insert swear word] blind?” It was sooo obvious, right?

Well, in fact, only a small percentage of situations where the ball makes contact with the hand/arm actually infringe on the laws of the game. According to FIFA, there is absolutely nothing illegal about the ball coming into contact with a player’s arm or hand, even if the player may benefit from the ball contacting the hand (it might bounce in a favorable direction, for example).

It is only illegal when the player DELIBERATELY creates that contact or uses unintentional contact in a DELIBERATE attempt to control or manipulate the movement of the ball.

For an infringement to have occurred one or more of the following conditions need to be met:

  1. it has to be DELIBERATE (not accidental)
  2. the arms are in an unnatural position (e.g. outstretched or above the head)
  3. the player could have avoided the touch
  4. player deliberately continued an initial (legal) contact for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage
  5. even if direct contact is avoided by holding something in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.)

So here are example situations when NO infringement occurred despite the hand/arm making contact with the ball:

  • player might extend his/her arms momentarily to keep from losing balance
  • the ball was kicked from short range and/or with high speed to make it impossible for the player to react (kicked balls travel anywhere from 30 mph to 80 mph, depending on age and gender)
  • player seems to be making a fair attempt to avoid using the hands and arms to play/touch the ball
  • the ball hits a rock or similar and quickly pops up and hits a player’s hand which was in a natural position
  • player turns his/her body to the side and the ball strikes the arm that the player had pressed against the body
  • player attempting to protect himself/herself from injury, for example by placing the hands in front of the face or chest (girls) or genitals (boys) and then being hit by the ball (boys often protect their genitals standing in the wall during free kicks, for example).

To be clear, it is NOT a ‘handball’ even when a goal is prevented through accidental contact with an arm that is in a natural position.

Also note that it is legal to control the ball with the top of the shoulder so this can never be a handling offense, but the side of the shoulder is considered part of the arm and therefore potentially illegal depending on the specific incident.

And, further, keep in mind that deciding on whether an infringement occurred depends on the opinion of the referee. He/she will typically be much closer to the event and will be in by far the best position to determine whether there was any movement toward the ball, for example.

In the large majority of cases you simply cannot see from the sidelines whether the player’s hand/body moved toward the ball or not, or whether the ball hit a rock or bump in the field. The human eye simply cannot determine this from 50 yards away and add to this that players and the ball are typically moving at speed when the event occurs. Only the referee is close enough (within 10 to 15 yards) to determine what happened.

In addition, the referee needs to take the age and experience of the players into account. To use an extreme example to make a point, an infringement by an elite U18 player might not be judged an infringement in the case of a U9 ‘rec’ player.

And, finally, the referee can still decide to play ‘advantage’ even if an infringement occurred. Play can also continue if, in the opinion of the referee, a deliberate ‘handball’ did not result in an advantage for the player/team committing the offense – the preference in this case might be to let the game flow. This last case is rare but possible.

So for the good of the game, coaches and parents, please dial back those ‘handball’ screams.

Fastest five goals in Bundesliga history – and saving the best one for last.

Take a moment to watch Lewandowski score an incredible five goals in 9 minutes for Bayern Munich (link below) to propel them to a 5-1 victory over their title rivals Wolfsburg. He completed a sensational five-minute hat-trick, added a fourth moments later, then took his tally to five with a brilliant acrobatic volley, saving the best for last.

Watch Guardiola”s reaction at the end.

CLICK HERE FOR MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

This was the…

  • fastest hat-trick in Bundesliga history;
  • fastest to reach 4 goals;
  • fastest to reach 5 goals;
  • first sub to score 5 goals;

…and he only needed 9 touches for all 5 goals.

Comments from a soccer dad who has been through it all

I received an email from a friend last night with reflections on the youth soccer/sports journey:

“Thanks for the link to your blog – I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to more of your entries.

I find the whole soccer landscape very intriguing, esp now that my kids have completed their journey through youth sports (and wrapped up my 10 years of coaching as well).

It’s often very entertaining to hear the parents chatting on the sideline as I work a game as an AR – the naïveté and dreamer’s mentality that exist makes me smile and sometimes laugh inside.

The perspective changes SO much once you’re outside that sphere of influence and have lived through the drama and the tales of woes and celebrations.

It’s a wonderful experience, but best taken with a strong sense of humor! ;-)”

It’s easy to lose perspective at times. We as parents are emotionally vested in our children and often also soccer. And the emotions of parents, coaches, and players often feed of each other as the season unfolds.

But let’s try to focus on positive emotions as much as possible and keep perspective. I’m guilty of losing perspective from time to time so last night’s email was much appreciated.

[Thank you, Rob, for sharing!]

A coach’s tirade

I’m going to write a longer post on refereeing soon, but wanted to comment on one of my games this weekend (I was one of the two Assistant Referees (AR), on the team benches’ side of the field). The game was a U18G ECNL game, one of the most elite girls games in the country.

The game went reasonably well until the last 25 or so minutes when the game became more physical as both teams pushed hard to score. It was a 1:0 game at this point.

The coach for one of the teams became very upset with the referee crew for, in his mind, questionable calls, lack of yellow card cautions, and disagreement between the Center Referee (CR) and the Assistant Referee (who was on the parents’ side of the field) regarding a possible penalty kick. After an unusually long discussion between the CR and the AR the decision went against this coach. But to be clear, this penalty incident wasn’t the trigger for the coach’s negativity – it started before that.

I’m not going to repeat his tirade, but rest assured that he was very upset for the entirety of the last ~25 minutes of the game. And it continued after the game was over. By the way, this coach’s team won 1:0.

Did the coach have some valid points? Maybe, but we’d have to watch a recording of the game to be sure. And even if the coach has some valid points there is the issue of if, when, and how to deliver those points.

But what I can say for sure is that this CR is one of the most organized, respectful, and committed referees I have come across. His demeanor, his body language, the way he organizes the player check-in process (with a clipboard!), his professional appearance (including color-matched pens to go with the color of his jersey), the way he talks to the players and coaches (including apologizing for the delay caused by the penalty kick discussion), and the way he interacts with other referees is exemplary. Probably the most polite referee I have come across. Note also that he gave the girls a water break half way through each half because we were dealing with 90+ degree temperatures.

You can now also probably see why the penalty discussion between him and the AR took longer than usual – he wanted to get the decision right. Getting it right was more important to him than the way this situation might look to folks watching.

I also know for a fact that he is definitely not doing this for the $40 he gets paid for the game. He doesn’t need the money. And note that his son stopped playing the game a couple of years ago because he lost interest. But this referee enjoys the game and decided to keep helping out in our soccer community. He took many hours out of his Sunday afternoon/evening schedule to officiate games, and please keep in mind that there is a big shortage of referees – more on this in my post on refereeing soon.

Should referees ideally be better? Yes. Do referees make mistakes? Yes – sometimes quite a few. But I can tell you that this kind of tirade from coaches and the negative atmosphere it creates also between players and referees (and between the opposing coaches and the opposing players) is emotionally draining on referees that are out there volunteering to make sure games can take place (and for many referees this would be game 4 or 5 that day, with ~90 degree temperatures). Especially for a referee like the CR for this game who truly cares about the players and the game and is genuinely trying to do his best.

For the good of the game, this coach’s tirade wasn’t acceptable.

P.S.: I will also soon write a post about the life of a coach. They don’t have it easy!

Data on the benefits of small-sided games

According to a study conducted by Manchester United, playing 4v4 instead of 8v8 yielded:

135% more passes
260% more scoring attempts
500% more goals scored
225% more 1v1 encounters
280% more dribbling skills

European youth soccer has been doing smaller-sided games up to U12/U14 for a long time. U.S. Soccer is now finally implementing the same (click here to see my earlier post on this topic).

Click here to download the ManU study.

[Thank you Peter for bringing this data to my attention.]

Soccer is a thinking game

Watching the likes of Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney points to a truth that we often miss amid the frenzy of top-class football: It’s a thinking game.

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE.

Words of wisdom from Coach Lasso

Something to make you smile. You’ve probably seen this already, but worth watching again.

New age chart starting Fall 2016

USSF-calendar-year-competition-age-chart-2016-18

US Club Soccer (aka NorCal) will implement new U.S. Soccer player development standards in two phases

In contrast to Cal North/CYSA, US Club Soccer will make changes in two phases:

  • transition from school-year based (Aug 1 – July 31) to calendar-year based (Jan 1 – Dec 31) by Aug 1, 2016.
  • small-sided games, which also includes changes to field and goal sizes, by Aug 1, 2017.

If able to do so, member clubs are encouraged to implement these initiatives prior to the mandates coming into full effect.

Player pass cards will continue to be issued based on an Aug 1 to July 31 competition season.

Starting Fall 2016 Cal North (aka CYSA) is adopting the new U.S. Soccer player development standards

Announcement from Cal North:

Pleasanton (September 16, 2015) – The Cal North Board of Directors is pleased to announce Cal North’s adoption of US Soccer’s calendar year age groupings, and small sided standards for state level, district level and intra-league play effective for the 2016/17 season. In all other competitions, Cal North strongly recommends adopting the small sided standards for the 2016/17 season and is required by US Soccer effective for the 2017/18 season.

Goal of the year? Crazy, instinctive, entertaining. Fantastic.

Something special by Roma’s Florenzi against Barcelona this week. Standing ovation from 58,000 spectators. Note that he is a defender (they shouldn’t be taking chances, right?) and he did this against Barcelona in the Champions League, the premier global soccer event. This is what top soccer is about. Let’s encourage our youth to take some risks and try some crazy stuff, folks! You don’t try something like this if you grow up playing a risk-averse game.

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE GOAL.

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