By Quinn Casteel
Loudoun Soccer’s technical staff contains some of the most experienced and respected youth soccer minds in the Washington D.C. metro area, helping the club’s travel program ascend to a higher level, as The Soccer Wire got to see firsthand during a visit to a busy evening of tryouts sessions earlier this week.
With some 1,600 kids attending the club’s tryouts over a two-week period, the coaches and evaluators must work furiously each night to make sure every player is evaluated appropriately and fairly as they seek to build the best possible collection of teams for the upcoming year.
When it comes to being effective in their analysis, the first thing the coaches take into account is the natural anxiety that comes with any tryout for any level of athlete.
“The biggest thing about tryouts is the emotional stress that is on the player,” said Loudoun Soccer Technical Director Darryl Gee. “The players that are here for the first time have a tendency to be a little nervous and that may show during the tryout process.”
Mark Ryan, the club’s director of coaching, said that in the younger age groups, the coaches will go as far as discounting out a tryout day for some kids based on the fact that nerves may be playing a factor, which is part of the reason why the Under-9 through U-12 age groups have a third day of tryouts as opposed to just two for the older teams. The other reason for the extra session is the higher numbers associated with the younger age groups, with more than 100 children trying out for each of those levels.
The anxiety factor and the discrepancy in numbers are not the only differences between the age groups, however.
With many of the organization’s top coaches evaluating players of all different age groups, ranging from U-9 to U-19, they have to be keen on what to look for in athletes in all stages of their development. Director of Girls Player Development RaeAnn Taylor is one of the coaches who does evaluations for girls and boys teams on the entire spectrum of age groups, and said that grading players is far from a ‘one size fits all’ strategy.
“At the younger age groups, you’re looking for athletic ability, and yes, you need skills, but at that age you can develop those,” explained Taylor. “We have some U-9s out here, and that’s based on pure energy. It’s about who wants the ball and who’s excited about it. Once you get to U-17 you can’t really grab a kid that hasn’t played soccer and put them into this environment. You have to have some skills and experience.”
As Taylor noted, when it comes to the younger age groups, she and the rest of the technical staff are inclined to pick players with a clear enthusiasm for the game, as well as raw athletic ability. However, when looking at older players, it starts to get a lot more complicated. Director of Coaching Mark Ryan told The Soccer Wire that as players get older, there are more and more factors that he begins to take into account when deciding whether or not to pick them for his team.
“Not only are we looking for good players on the field, we want to know if they’re good kids off the field,” said Ryan, who also coaches Loudoun Soccer’s trio ofU-16 boys teams. “We want to know if they’ll add to the mixture of the group or if they’ll disrupt it. The ability of the player on the field is one thing, but their character off the field and how they conduct themselves around the group is also very important.”
Randy May is Co-Head Coach of the U-16 Girls program, and said that to him, technical abilities and decision making are the first things he looks at in a player.
“When I’m watching these scrimmages I’m always looking for good decision making on the ball,” said May, who is also Director of College Placement for Loudoun Soccer. “Are they problem solvers? If Player A can solve a problem, meaning he’s picking the ball out of the air or making the smart pass, versus Player B who gets the ball and he can’t make it work. It’s about how you are going to solve a particular situation on the field.”
For May and Ryan, the decision-making process for this year’s teams will not be as demanding as it will be for other coaches who have essentially entire rosters to fill out. May’s squad, the U-16 girls, has a core group of players moving up together who are expected to play important roles with the team. Ryan’s group is actually three squads, a red team, a black team and a white team, listed in order from highest to lowest in rank, which means Ryan and the rest of the coaching staff will get to keep about 80 percent of the tryout participants on one of the teams.
“Going into their sophomore year in high school, to have three competitive teams in this age group is great,” said Ryan. “It means a lot of kids are playing soccer and we have a lot of great players in our program.”
At Monday’s tryout session, the U-16 boys took up two of the six soccer fields at Phillip A. Bolen Park in Leesburg, Va. with free-flowing, full-sided scrimmages and still had players waiting to be rotated in. Despite the whirlwind around them, Ryan and his three- to four-man coaching staff were turning back and forth between the two fields and still managing to keep tabs on every player on the pitches.
“A lot of people might look at us and say, ‘Wow, what are they doing?’ But there is a method to the madness,” explained Ryan. “The players that are currently on the rosters are being evaluated year-round, so we know a lot of our own players. The biggest challenge is looking at the kids that we aren’t familiar with, trying to get a good handle on those players as quickly as possible within the mix of the players we currently have. We are organized in everything and we’re trying to see players and give them the best opportunity to try and show themselves.”
The main goal of Ryan and the rest of Loudoun’s staff is not just to build the best teams in a competitive sense, but also to make sure every player in the program is in the best place for their individual needs. They believe that if they treat the needs of the kids with the same level of importance as the teams’ success, the two will go hand in hand. The organization has set lofty goals, like sending at least three teams from the younger age groups to the final four in the Virginia State Cup next spring, and the increasing number of Loudoun products continuing their soccer careers at strong college programs suggests that player development is on track as well.
And it all starts with an acute attention to detail in the tryouts process.