Interview by Mike Woitalla
In Part 2 of our interview with Tim Holt, the USL president addresses some of the key issues facing American youth soccer. Although best known for its expansive network of pro, semipro and amateur adults leagues, USL has had a major impact on the youth game, having launched the Super Y-League in 1999. USL also operates an Olympic Development Program, a U-20 Super Y-League, and its Premier Development League (PDL) provides a bridge to pro soccer for young players.
SOCCER AMERICA: Is there anything that USL does to help alleviate the huge pay-to-play problem in American youth soccer?
TIM HOLT: This continues to be a huge challenge for us all. Many USL clubs, including the USL PRO Richmond Kickers, are now offering participation in their highest level academies at no cost to the players. MLS clubs have also led the way on this front.
It is quite an investment to make this happen and most of the solutions to this will need to be generated at the club level. However, all leagues, tournaments, clubs and other associations have a responsibility to allocate resources in a manner that doesn’t make it prohibitive for players with financial hardship to have access to the best clubs, coaching and competition.
SA: Can you speak to the role the PDL plays giving young players an environment in which they play with and against older and more experienced players ...
TIM HOLT: Quite simply, the PDL is the bridge from the highest levels of youth soccer and collegiate soccer to the professional game.
With the 65 top non-professional teams in the United States and Canada, and consistently over 70 percent of MLS draftees participating in this competition, the PDL is an established proving ground for the next generation of professionals.
The unique model and structure of the PDL allows for current collegiate players to compete alongside and against (non-paid) former professionals, which creates the right mix for development. A regional competition model and 14-game season allows for these players to have a daily training and game schedule akin to what they experience at the professional level.
As past Open Cup results have shown, on any given day these teams can compete and have success against the best professional teams our nation has to offer. This league continues to grow in popularity and importance. Not only a number of MLS and USL PRO teams but many top youth clubs own/operate PDL teams to provide a graduated next step for their youth academies.
SA: What are some traits you see in youth clubs that you believe create the right environment for young players?
TIM HOLT: Most important is establishing a club ethos that instills a sense of respect, passion and love for the game. Further, one of the common denominators that we see among clubs successful in developing players for the next level and ensuring a positive experience for all players irrespective of their ability is that there is a singular club philosophy that all of the individual teams and coaches embrace.
Too many clubs remain more a confederation of individual teams playing under one brand, rather than a true club that is committed to a singular method of training, style of play, expectations, etc. Achieving this is a function of leadership at the very top of the club and constant communication/reinforcement with all stakeholders (coaches, players, and parents).
SA: What message would you send to coaches at the youngest ages?
TIM HOLT: Let kids be creative, keep them active, and make it fun! You can teach the basic skills of the sport within enjoyable activities and games. The game is the best teacher so put the kids in situations where they have the freedom to make decisions and find solutions.
Finally, and most importantly, encourage young players dribble and take defenders on in appropriate situations, rather than demanding they immediately pass every time they receive the ball -- we have a culture of criticizing kids that “overdribble” and labeling them as selfish players, yet we bemoan the fact that we aren’t developing any creative playmakers and attacking players ...
On that note, I believe that our most glaring player development “problems” is our collective failure to prioritize Zone 1 [ages 6 to 12]. Perhaps this is fantasy, but how do we get our very best coaches and teachers of the game to focus regularly on working with our youngest players?
Of course, top coaches aspire to coach professional, college, and the oldest youth teams, and our system creates economic and other incentives that reinforce this. This isn’t anyone’s fault, however in the elite soccer nations the most talented coaches with a gift for teaching the game work with the younger age groups where they can have the biggest impact on our future national teams.
These coaching positions are viewed with equal or greater significance and respect to the professional level gigs. In the U.S., these roles are largely left to well-intentioned parents or developing coaches and as a result we don’t maximize this critical early window for establishing a foundation of important skills.
SA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?
TIM HOLT: I would use it to eliminate a lot of the distractions/obstacles -- TV, video games, fear of letting kids out on their own, etc. -- that prevent today’s kids from heading out in their neighborhoods and to the parks and organizing themselves to play soccer without adult direction.
This is where a lot of the real improvement occurs and most importantly it is soccer on their terms, not adults’ terms. There is a limit to how much you can improve and develop with two training sessions per week and a game on the weekend.
This “free play” is the time to experiment, get a ton more touches on the ball, and develop that love and joy for the sport that lasts a lifetime.
Read Part 1 of the Holt Q&A HERE.
(USL President Tim Holt joined USL in 1999, originally serving as the A-League & Super Y-League Operations Director. He started overseeing the all USL senior leagues in 2002, was named vice president in 2004, and president in 2009. Holt is co-chairman of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Committee and a longtime member of the US Soccer Federation (USSF) Professional Council. Holt played youth ball for Pennsylvania’s FC Delco, for which he’s also served as coach and administrator.)
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)