Some of America's biggest stars recount crucial aspects of their youth soccer experiences
By Mike Woitalla
The veteran of four World Cup teams has played top-flight soccer in Europe longer than any American in history. Starting with German club Bayer Leverkusen in 1994, Claudio Reyna, 33, is now in his sixth English Premier League season.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he was coached first by his father, Miguel, who played pro ball in Argentina.
''My father's coaching philosophy was, ',''' says Reyna in his book, ''More Than Goals: The journey from backyard games to World Cup competition.'' ''He would rather us play well and lose than go out and play ugly and win.''
When he and his teammates were about 10, Claudio says his father encouraged them to string passes together and heaped praise upon them when they were able to keep possession. He didn't mind if they lost to teams that depended on booting the ball to a big boy up front.
''Playing possession soccer would pay off in the long run, even if it doesn't get results at the youth level,'' Reyna says. ''He knew that when players advanced to higher levels, the direct, long-ball approach would become ineffective, because it's a predictable strategy and it becomes especially futile when the team no longer has a size advantage.''
In the pros and for the USA, Reyna has played attacking and defensive midfielder, on both flanks, on the frontline, and as an outside back. That versatility started early.
''My dad had us ,'' Reyna says. ''A lot of star players are only used in the center during their youth career. When they join a team that already has players to fill that role, they can't adjust to another position, and their career comes to an early end.''
By the time she retired in 2004 at age 32, Mia Hamm had won two Women's World Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals, set the world record for scoring and was considered the greatest female player ever.
She started playing organized youth soccer at 6 and grew up playing on girls and boys teams. But in her book, ''Go for the Goal: A Champion's Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life,'' she credits the pickup games she played with her older brother and other older children and recess soccer games on her grade school's blacktop as a key to her development.
''I was able to dribble all I wanted,'' Hamm says. ''I had to learn to trap and pass on concrete, which helped me sharpen my skills.''
She emphasizes the importance of dribbling skills:
''You've heard some players get called 'ball hog,' but the fact is that in practice everyone should take a turn at being a ball hog sometimes. This is how you learn to dribble, by practicing when it doesn't matter how many times you lose the ball.''
Of organized youth soccer, Hamm says that, ''Too often in this country, youth coaches sacrifice learning skills for winning games. Often coaches won't let players take chances by passing the ball around a lot. The quicker you get the ball forward, the less likely it is that it will be stolen and lead to a quick counterattack. While valid, this shortsighted philosophy can be counterproductive to developing athletes who can play the game with the same grace, skill, and power that has come to typify the U.S. women's national team.''
He grew up in the East Texas town of Nacogdoches and while a teenager played in Hispanic adult leagues for teams with names such as Zamora, Tampico and El Salvador.
''There were ex-pros and former semi-pros,'' Clint Dempsey says. ''I learned a lot. Playing with men, you have to learn quickly. It's sink or swim. It forced me to develop.''
Dempsey, MLS's 2004 Rookie of the Year, says he grew up admiring the Argentine, Colombian and Brazilian style of play.
''Keeping the ball and making the other team work,'' says Dempsey. ''The Hispanic league was like that.''
Starting in fifth grade, Dempsey took six-hour roundtrip journeys to Dallas to play for the Texas Longhorns and Dallas Texans. And he played on his own.
''I was the little kid in a big family,'' he says, ''so I usually had someone to kick around with. When I was alone, I'd juggle, kick against the wall, or dribble around by myself pretending I was in the middle of a big game.''
Dempsey was, at age 23, the third youngest member of the USA's 2006 World Cup squad and the only one to hit the net. He received offers from abroad after the World Cup but remains with the New England Revolution.
He says playing in different environments is what helped him become the goal-dangerous, dynamic midfielder he is today.
''The main thing is love of the game,'' says Dempsey. ''You've got to love the game and go out and play with passion. You've got to want to play whenever you can and find a game wherever you can find it.''
He didn't win titles when he was a boy, but, by age 23, Landon Donovan lifted three MLS Cups.
He won two in San Jose, scoring once in his first MLS Cup and twice in his second. Last season, he powered Los Angeles to the title with four goals and two assists in postseason play.
''Before my first MLS final, I thought to myself, 'I can't remember ever winning anything with my club teams growing up,'' says Donovan, 24, who has scored 25 goals for the USA and has played in two World Cups, U-17 and U-20 world championships, and the Olympics.
''It's amazing to me that people put so much emphasis on trying to be tactical and worry about winning when it doesn't matter when you're 12 years old,'' Donovan says. ''It's sad. That's something that's going to have to change if we want soccer in this country to develop.''
The Southern Californian credits his skill development on playing youth ball with a team comprised mostly of Latino kids coached by a man, Clint Greenwood, who ''was always focused on a lot of ball contact.''
Says Donovan: ''His theory was absolutely perfect: As a kid you need to touch the ball as much as you can. You should always be with the ball. You should have a feeling that wherever the ball is, you can do anything with it. No matter where it is, where it is on your body, how it's spinning, how it's coming at you, the speed it's coming at you, anything.
''You can learn the tactical side of the game later. We're Americans, we're athletes. But if we never learn at an early age to be good on the ball, then it's just useless.''