Coaches: Empower young players. Turn them loose to compete

By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

There is a great lesson unfolding in soccer right now – a story about a maverick amateur team that is defeating, no, embarrassing the pros of Major League Soccer (Mark Ziegler, June 3, 2012. The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC).

Eric Wynalda, was a three-time World Cup player who has not been hired as a coach in the MLS because of radical ideas like trusting his players to make spontaneous decisions during games. So he started his own amateur team in California, a recycled bunch of cast-offs who were cut from pro teams and now work regular day jobs. They built a team that is beating MLS teams that practice more, condition by the hour and follow the current trend toward robotic systems. 

Many of Wynalda’s group (Cal FC Soccer) were too small or too slow or didn’t test well. Like hockey, soccer has decided that size and athleticism matter more than skill and creativity. Martin St. Louis had to live with this nonsense for years before he was finally given the chance to show he is one of the very best players in the NHL.

Every NHL team decided St. Louis was too small, even though he led his college team (Vermont) in scoring all four years and was a Hobey Baker finalist three of those years. A couple good seasons in the minors earned Martin some limited playing time with the Calgary Flames, where again, he was too small to do what coach Brian Sutter wanted from a fourth liner. After being traded to the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis earned more ice time and helped lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Championship in his third year.

And what a year for this feisty, brilliant competitor who had always been considered “too small.” He won the league scoring title; the NHL players voted him MVP of the league as did the sportswriters; and he scored the winning goal in the sixth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second overtime. That goal gave the Lightning the chance to win the Cup in game 7.

It appears that “feisty and brilliant” are also part of the winning formula for the Cal FC gang of misfits. Like St. Louis, they are out to prove the “experts” wrong. And, as a coach, Wynalda rejects the robotic structure of the MLS clubs. When asked about his system, Wynalda shrugs as if he isn’t quite sure what comes next. “Sometimes we have five in the back; sometimes four; sometimes three. We slip-and-slide.”

In other words, Cal FC players are encouraged to compete with their minds as much as their bodies. Wynalda believes that many potentially brilliant young soccer players are “ruined” by coaches who insist on too much structure.  Youngsters don’t learn to, “… play the game they’re in. They’re so worried about playing by a blueprint.”

“We’ve sucked the creativity out of the players,” he added. “Our guys are 5-foot nothing, but we have soccer IQ and creativity.”

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.



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