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How Free Play helped kill the DA

I have a nice DA story, I feel I helped kill it...

JOTP U12 Sounders

In 2007 the USSF announced they were opening up applications for the new "Development Academy"

We were turned down (despite the # of MLS Nat’l team players, coaching, etc).

in 2009 Academy status was given to a club that had been in existence for 1 year, Minnesota Thunder Academy.

Once they had academy status they went around to all the other clubs with some very high powered (even to this day) coaches who said “Either give us your kids or we will take them from you.”

Fear and loathing everywhere. Many clubs panicked and joined

It was going to blow the socks off everyone, and they basically did.

They were an unstoppable force.

Fast forward a few years. In MN we have The USA Cup one of the largest soccer tournaments in the US.

Our kids wanted to play, we signed up teams in many age groups. Really having no set teams we gathered kids as we applied. Like all our kids the 12s were a mix of kids that just played all the time, almost everyday for two years straight, indoors, outdoors, street soccer, futsal, campo, you name it.

Signing up late the U12s were bumped to the gold division. No team at JOTP had ever played in the gold flight before.

But by the end of the first round they stood on top of their group. In the quarter finals they would play the vaunted MTA on one of the “A” fields, the glamour court of USA cup.

Those who were there will remember the crowd gathering from all fields the MTA teams brought a legion of fans who came to see the best.

If there was ever a David vs Goliath at the USA Cup, this was it.

The contrast was stunning On one side you had the MTA set of coaches (all four) were spaced out at 15 yards almost by plan covering one half of the field to yell instructions. 14 Very big and intimidating kids.

Our team had one sub, 9 kids, 3 younger kids and 2 girls. I could see younger ones seemed nervous, the older kids acting the opposite to model a confidence.

Meanwhile their coach, Raffi was talking softly to his team. Raffi was not intimidated by the DA juggernaut. He had the advantage, just like the kids, of understanding that this was just a game. And you play games to win. He had been a part of JOTP from the start helping guide and support the important things at JOTP. If he had to win he would do it with these kids.

“I am not going to tell them what to do,” he told me earlier, “It’s like that line from TROY, ‘you don’t control Achilles, you unleash him’”

Then the game began.

The MTA kids followed a beautiful pattern. Their build up was immaculate, the two center backs split the defensive mid received the ball the ball moving at angles up the field. They were on top of our box with such ease. Always moving the ball quickly, looking for the through ball, the cross the outside shot.

The JOTP kids wanted to penetrate and get to goal.

The early play was all MTA. I watched incognito from the throngs. You could feel the crowd leaning in waiting for the kill from MTA

MTA Scored first and my wife was unimpressed “Huh, a bunch of robots.”

I was watching a little more apprehensive. “That’s a nice build up.”

Soon they scored again to take a 2-0. Then, going in for the kill they made the mistake of crossing the ball.

Our keeper caught the ball off that cross. Not missing beat He ran to the top of the box holding the ball out from his body like Deon Sanders, offering it to the other team. And oh boy did they come. They charged right at him, no more able to control themselves, a spanish bull going after a red cape.

As he got to the top of the box he simply tossed the ball softly just over their heads letting the ball come down, running up the field with the ball.

Build up JOTP style.

He passed the ball to his younger sister who passed to Joe D who approached the MTA goal.

Isolated and stopped by a defender near the top of the box Joe started to run laterally towards a second defender. Surely they have him now?

“Hey, where is he going?”

In his book, 'David vs Goliath,' Malcolm Gladwell talks about how in the real world the "davids" actually win more often than we tend to think, and they do it by turning disadvantages into advantages.

The DA was about to see it firsthand because Joe had the defenders right where he wanted them.

JOTP kids who are mismatched in a 1 v 1 situation will often drag the defender toward another defender, defying expensive and peer reviewed coaching manuals.

He was about to take a disadvantage (1 v 2) and make it an advantage. By moving the two defenders together where he asked them to “talk" to each other: “I got him, no, you have him, right?”

(see examples)

Little Joe split those two defenders leaving them almost holding hands. The goalie could not get off his line, Joe roofed the near post shot with extreme emphasis.

Game on.

And he did it because he could communicate better than the DA kids. He was smaller, slower but it did not matter, they could not stop him if they were holding hands.

The faces of the spectators! Did you see that? The players from MTA who pointed back at the start of the play “That had to be a hand ball!” (Never visited JOTP I guess, I thought). The coaches (all 4 in unison) “it’s ok.” But not looking at each other.

One team, passing the ball beautifully around the back, the very best 12 year olds certainly, a beautiful orchestra of ball and position play. Check your shoulders, receive on the front foot, communicate (“turn,”), first defender, second defender.

It was all just fuel for the JOTP kids who, growing up in chaos of one game after the other, had never seen anything so predictable.

The JOTP team was not an orchestra but a traditional minnesotan garage rock band, thrown together with the available boys, girls and tambourines from the neighborhood--can’t play their instruments, just so much noise.

You can't play like that?

And you might even ask yourself: Who is ever going to listen to these guys? Ever?

But you would also think, they are trying to say something, these kids believe that one day all this noise will one day produce a hit song??

But like any good rock band they came at you not caring what you thought.

Jotp just attacked. Very vertical, very little patience, just go. But each time they did, it was almost like they were tinkering with the problem, fast to fail and try something else. Individual penetration? Outside penetration? Combination play?

While MTA played something that came from what the coaches thought U12 soccer (and maybe adult/Pro?) should look like.

I knew UEFA "A" level coaches hoping to take the USSF A License but could not get in as the USSF reserved all available spots to their national DA coaching staff. Their thought? We will quickly have the best coaching staff.

And I knew that the DA teams were actually graded on style of play.

But all this helicoptering by the USSF actually turned an advantage into a disadvantage.

MTA's attack looked nice, but also very predictable, with failure seen as something to be avoided. Two touch, careful, and low risk play that you would expect if a team was being graded on style of play.

Years later, I was having lunch with Tab Ramos. He was going over his U20 roster, he was frustrated with results of the DA and general development:

"I don't need another two touch kid, I need someone who can make plays."

One team was trying to be something else, and one team was trying to be themselves.

JOTP Scored again, the game went back and forth, but the spectators had been turned, now chanting “OLE” each time the boys (and especially the girls) dribbled by the academy kids.

As the game moved toward its end you could literally see the MTA kids struggle, trying so hard as the game was tied, it was so hard to watch. For me who has thousands and thousands of hours coaching and watching kids develop I could see where their lack of variability within their training applied to the very best 12 year olds in the state could not produce the adaptation required to adjust, and solve the problem. You could see the DA kids asking themselves. Where was their formation? Their width? Why can’t we get the ball off their feet, and why are they always smiling?

Sport scientists will tell you that kids who learn implicitly show skills that are more impervious to pressure. The Jotp team was not more mentally tough, they had just learned the skills in a better way.

Late in the game the JOTP goalie came up to take a 30 yard free kick and won the game with a bar down shot.

Game over.

I wanted things to change right then and there.

I guess it would be hypocritical of me to expect a change after one rare win, after all at JOTP we are certainly not known for our wins, we have lost so many more games than we have won, but rarely do we see more joy, more comfort, and I guess you could say resilience, as our kids just want to play, play, play.

I am friends with the coaches, they remember too, but I don't believe they really understood what was happening.

“Too many Mistakes!”

(really?, I thought, that’s our speciality).

“We’ll be changing some things.” and then to a parent as they walked by “See you at tryouts next week.”

After all these were exceptional coaches, format, uniforms, warm ups, plan, periodization, speed and fitness, dome training, they had it all. So it had to be the kid’s fault.

Not for us, we were set on doubling down on fun, on play.

This must be the end of the DA, I thought.