Frank Dell'Apa: Youth need grass, focus on skills over fitness

MLS academies are helping change development in the United States, providing free training and grass fields.
Some time after the Naval Ammunition Depot was decommissioned in 1965, soccer fields were laid out next to the 4,000-acre Wompatuck State Park, a recreation area south of Boston.

The local high school, Hingham, uses one of them for its games and practices, and the coach, Kenny Carlin, makes certain the groundskeepers maximize the dimensions.

“We get it to 78 yards wide,” Carlin said recently. “The wider the better.”

And Carlin’s team uses every inch of the pitch, keeping the ball on the ground, pulling and stretching the opposition.

The tactic works well, because the smooth, grass surface allows – even encourages – the kids to play the ball smoothly. Sometimes, opposing teams get into the spirit as well, spreading the ball to the wings, playing it quickly to feet in the center of the field.

One thing noticeable about the Hingham team is that there is no sense of panic. The team will attempt to accelerate the pace of play, but not with a sense of being out of control or rushing to launch low-percentage balls to nowhere.

Most of Hingham’s opponents are used to playing on narrow fields or artificial surfaces, so the real grass and spacious dimensions often give the home team a huge advantage, which Carlin’s team used, losing only once during the regular season before being eliminated by Canton in the second round of the state playoffs.

And that is a damning statement. Authentic turf and a big field should be the rule, not the exception, for high school and youth soccer.

Of course, there are climatic and space considerations. There is plenty of room in suburbs such as Hingham, but were the town located a few miles further north, the fields would be crawling with pickup players and the demand from youth soccer would be enormous.

It would be nice if the majority of high school teams had a great surface to play on and a coach who encouraged them to play the game the right way. But, that is rare in New England.

The MLS academy programs are changing that dynamic. Teams usually play on grass and, hopefully, they will be emphasizing skills over fitness. It might seem minor, but having a referee and two linesman officiate the game is crucial. In New England, the better players are gravitating to the academies, and not only because they do not have to pay to play, but because they do not want to compete in games with the two-referee system and quirky rules.

Youngsters who simply want to play the game the right way are being attracted to academies. They know there will be scouts at those games. They want the game of soccer to be played by the rules and officiated the way they see it done everywhere else in the world.

There are now several U.S.-based investors in European soccer clubs. I met with one recently. He would like to recruit U.S. talent but believes there are no players who can help a high-level Euro club.

“We’re so far behind and we’re never going to catch up, and it’s because of the system,” he said. “They want big, fast kids here and the ones with skill who are going to develop are left out, so they quit. It’s never going to change.”

The academies have been criticized for demanding exclusive use of high school age players, but they might be the only hope for change. High school programs can still present excellent soccer without having what would be considered elite talent. Hingham High School proved that this season.