Last weekend I drove down to Calgary to get in an afternoon and early evening of player scouting at the Alberta Tier I Provincials. This day for me provided an example of what could be right, and a glaring condemnation of what is currently wrong.
In my short afternoon, I was able to witness all that we love about our sport when I watched a U14 Boys team, who needing a result, come back from 3-0 down with 12 minutes to play to win the game 4-3. This incredible comeback lifted the Edmonton team to a spot in the championship final. This game provided the spectators with a validation of why we love sports: the unpredictability of it, the emotions that begin to grow when after each goal we start to think that this team may come back, the celebration of victory for the winning boys, and of course you can almost feel the incredible emotion of defeat and disbelief for the lads that have just seen their spot in the championship final stolen away. That game stole the headlines on the day, with people still talking about it hours after the final whistle had blown. This, again, is why we love the sport.
The next game I watched provided me with a glowing example of what could be in Alberta, when Foothills 00s were up against Juventus 00s. Foothills, I think it is fair to say, is setting the standard in youth development in Alberta, with a licensed staff whom all push a player development mandate. It is no surprise that they have had a ridiculous number of teams qualifying for Tier I and Tier II provincials this year. Their opposition was Edmonton Juventus, a team coached by our own FCE Academy U16 Head Coach Kurt Bosch, and having ten players who also represent our Academy. This is another program, and in particular a coach, that does a brilliant job of developing players. The game itself was an example of the highest levels of technique at the U16 age group, with a handful of players showing fantastic individual technical ability under pressure. Tactically, you could also see that both teams were organized. And while the game itself didn’t provide the sequences of passing I was hoping to see, it did provide a contrast of styles on the day that the nature and importance of the game dictated. To clarify this point about possession, when a tournament format does not require both teams to win a game, it will alter the way each team plays. Certainly both of these teams are able to keep the ball and there were several examples of quality passing sequences and even more importantly for me, some clever movement off the ball to support and create these passing options. In this particular match, one team needed a result and the other simply a draw to get into the championship game. After the first twenty minutes, and with Juventus only needing the draw and taking a one-goal lead, I thought the game and players’ tactical decisions perfectly adhered to the scenario. There were some comments about one team trying to win and the other only looking to defend, but is that not part of the learning process for young players? At this age group, we all certainly want to see two teams pressing forward, both teams playing attacking soccer, and pressing to win the ball back; however, there has to be the element of game development, where players realize situations and whether they can play out, play over the top, play through the middle, etc. I have often talked about the lack of game awareness in many of the young players who first join our Academy, and today was an example of perhaps young players who were smart enough to understand their situations. One needed a result and pressed to get it, while the other needed simply a draw and deserve full marks for their efforts as well. Regardless of the final result, which ended 2-1 in favour of Juventus, the game itself was a demonstration of the quality that can be achieved when the best players play against the best players. Even with the team who spent more time defending and clearing their lines, there were enough moments to see the technical ability of its players. Could you imagine a league where games like this were the norm, not the exception?!
Finally, my day would end earlier than expected because the last games I would watch set the example of what is absolutely wrong with youth soccer in Alberta at the moment. I won’t get too much into the actual games themselves but rather just highlight the final scores — 10-0 and 7-0. This is the provincial Tier I finals. And while I am in 100% support of providing opportunities for all players to play, I fail to see how these results can be good for anyone involved. For the players losing by those scores, what are their thoughts after the game? And for the players winning, what have they learned? In games where one team is never pressed on the ball, is able to attack goal and/or pass the ball around in an unrealistic fashion, what is really learned? I have had so many players come into our Academy from environments where getting lopsided results is the norm. These super teams, coached more by telephone than by skill, never offer the players the opportunities to have to deal with immediately pressure on the ball, or defending situations that work on a players ability to play on both sides of the ball. We need our best players in challenging environments, and that is both for training and games. Results like this might be good for egos, but they do little for development! With the day getting late, and the scores getting out of hand, I did not stay to see these games out.
This last paragraph now leads me into my final comments for this entry, and that is to express my utter disbelief that soccer people in this province will not support a High Performance league. I am not naive enough to believe that an HPL league will immediately solve all problems, but it should certainly be the starting point to developing stronger players and stronger coaches. Following the LTPD and CSA Player Pathway, it should only make sense to now add another tier to Alberta’s soccer landscape. Tier I and Tier II provincials can still exist as they do, and include many of the clubs that have competed over the past couple of weeks. Now, however, is the time to include an elite Tier. If the word ‘elite’ bothers you, then perhaps you need to remove yourself from any official soccer position that involves you making decisions on the development of players in this province. I have heard so many positive reasons to support an HPL league, from the balance in competition, the emphasis on player development, the high standards required from licensed coaches, the maintenance of a training curriculum, a proper training to game ratio, the introduction of sports science, etc., etc., etc. The other rationale is to further develop young refs who need to be in highly competitive and up-tempo games for their own development. On the coaching side, an emphasis will be placed on coaches getting their licenses. Without a national license, certain positions in the HPL would not be available, and this is how is should be. If coaches are not prepared to further educate themselves, then they do not deserve to be taking money to develop players. Finally, let me say that an HPL league brings our province a bit closer to mirroring the type of development pathway one might see in soccer nations. This gets us closer in line to the country’s governing body having some say in how players will get developed and corrects our currently upside-down pyramid. Now that I have mentioned some of the reasons promoting an HPL league, I would love to hear from some of the soccer people who are against it. What are your reasons for turning it down?