Interview by Mike Woitalla
Todd Saldana grew up playing youth soccer in Southern California in the 1970s, when his club coach was Sigi Schmid. Saldana played for the USA at the first U-20 World Cup it qualified for, in 1981, and signed pro out of high school with the old NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs, where his coaches included Rinus Michels and Claudio Coutinho. He served as Schmid's assistant at UCLA in 1989-94 and was UCLA head coach in 1999-2001 before returning to So Cal youth soccer a decade ago as Director of Coaching for the South Bay Force. In 2011, he lifted the U-17/18 U.S. Soccer Development Academy national title when the Force partnered with the Pateadores. In Part 2 of our interview we spoke with Saldana about youth soccer issues such as giving children opportunities to play different positions and the keys to developing high-level talent.
SOCCER AMERICA: Do you ever think back to how different the youth game was during your childhood and now?
TODD SALDANA: I had a unique experience. Sigi Schmid was my youth coach from the time I was 11 to 18. He was a college player and college coach [at UCLA]. Back then, if you had three teams you were considered a club. The coaches weren’t getting paid. You had guys like Sigi volunteering because they loved the game. He coached our team because his brother, who was my age, was on the team.
It was a lot less structured. There weren’t many clubs. If you had a great coach, which was the case in my situation, and you were very, very fortunate. I had Norm Jackson, our local state level person. I got into the national team program at 14. My state coach was Ralph Perez. My regional coach was Lothar Osiander. I was very fortunate, but it was by chance, I think, back then.
SA: What’s an example of something in youth soccer now that benefits player development?
TODD SALDANA: The good thing is we're able to move players around within the club. Before, if you were on a team, you had to be on that team for a year. Now, we can move the kids weekly. Now, if someone’s doing really well. they can move up. If someone needs more playing time, they can move down.
SA: What does the South Bay Force look for in its coaches?
TODD SALDANA: Club coaches come in all shapes. Some of them have full-time jobs. Some of them want to coach as much soccer as they can get their hands on. Some of them played college. Some played pro.
The big thing for us is for them to be willing to be part of the team and be committed to the club. We follow the guidelines. We believe in playing possession soccer. To try and play a skillful brand of soccer.
What I’ve seen in the coaches who have done well for us at the club: They like to work in the club, be a part of the club, and they’re committed, which means they’ll spend the extra hour on the field with their team. I don’t have to say, "Hey, you need to run an extra session, you’re team is struggling in this area." The coaches want to see the kids get better.
SA: How do you balance the pressure to win games and coaching in a way that’s good for the players’ long-term development?
TODD SALDANA: Parents look for winning as one of the barometers for choosing a club so it is in the back of your mind.
Trying to play well, trying to score goals, trying to shutout your opponents. These are natural things within a game, so you’re promoting all those things.
But you will see our under-8s or under-9s building out of the back. Playing offensive soccer. Defenders attacking.
We face it and we worry about it, but we have had enough success and we have enough players who have gone into the national team programs, pros and college -- so we’re not under severe pressure to win, especially at the U-8 and U-11.
Fortunately, our new league has taken a stance that they’re not going to keep standings at U-8, U-9, U-10 -- trying to take the focus off of that.
SA: One valuable experience for young players, which may not always help teams win, is giving them opportunities to play different positions. How does the South Bay Force approach that?
TODD SALDANA: In the younger ages, 8, 9, 10,11 -- we do move them around. We also try to play similar systems so the kids learn all the positions, and understand the roles of each. We give them a little bit of time at each.
What’s good is we have a lot of friendlies. We do intra-club scrimmages, stuff with local other clubs -- so we can try those things in practice matches. Because when we get to league matches, the parents and the kids are thinking about winning, and if you put a players in a certain position they haven’t played much, there’s a lot of pressure on them
So those extra matches are good. With a 40-team club, you can get a game every week with another team in the club.
I do find that young players sort of tell you eventually where they want to play and where they’re comfortable playing. You throw a ball in small-sided game and one kid moves back, and one kid moves up, and one goes in the middle. It’s almost uncanny.
SA: What qualities do you think American players need to improve on?
TODD SALDANA: The technical side of the game obviously has been the big emphasis for soccer in America now. That’s a fact. You also need to include game understanding. The mentality of the match is one of the qualities in which we suffer. Club soccer is all about tournaments and six games a weekend -- not one huge, important, get-the-most-out-of-every-minute match you might see in other countries.
I think we sort of diluted that with tournament soccer, which we still see a lot of. But now with the Development Academy, you’re seeing three days of training, one meaningful match a weekend.
I do think the way our kids approach the game is in a very casual manner and not at the same level you’d see in other countries where it’s one super meaningful match to train all week to get ready for.
SA: What separates players who excel at the higher levels?
TODD SALDANA: Kids going out on their own and developing their skills and their creativity. That has been lost through too much organization. So much structure. Parents are putting their kids in programs when it’s not necessarily the kids’ passion.
I think you find the kids’ passion when they aren’t in a program. It’s all the other hours, all the time you put into it, and how much you love it.
I preach that in my own club. Two days of soccer training, a little bit of skill work and some conditioning is not going to take you to the highest levels. It certainly can be a great experience, but if your kids want to play at highest youth levels, the top colleges, pros or the national teams -- it’s the time they put in on their own, and that personal drive and love for the game.
I still think that separates those who have been successful. They were training on their own. And they were finding extra training sessions with older teams. Or playing in the Latin League and their own league, because they just couldn’t get enough of it.
We have a lot of those stories here. Jose Villarreal and the kids we have here locally. They all could not get enough of this game and would play it with anyone, anytime. There’s no scheduled event, so we’re going to go practice.
If they enjoy the game, they like the game, they tend to spend more time at it and they seem to reach the level that they should.
Read Part 1 of our interview with Todd Saldana HERE.