By Charles Boehm
Maryland’s Bethesda Soccer Club and New Jersey-based powerhouse Players Development Academy stand out as two heavyweights of the nation’s elite youth soccer scene, routinely grooming players for successful college, pro and even international careers.
Both clubs consistently build nationally-competitive sides at multiple age levels, and both tend to field teams with advanced technical ability and tactical concepts. And as it turns out, two of their top teams are coached by former college teammates who learned their craft under the man Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla called perhaps the most influential coach in American soccer history.
Dave Nolan and Mike O’Neill lead Bethesda’s and PDA’s Under-16 teams, respectively, in the top-tier Elite Clubs National League and are two of the many elite youth coaches who pull double duty at the college level, with the Irish-born Nolan heading the women’s program at Georgetown University and O’Neill an assistant at Rutgers. The duo also happens to have worn the same college colors two decades ago under the legendary Manny Schellscheidt, in the midst of Seton Hall University’s golden era of NCAA men’s soccer success.
“Yeah, I have a back problem now, because I used to carry Davey,” cracked O’Neill last weekend when asked about his playing days with Nolan. The Soccer Wire spoke to both coaches during the Jefferson Cup tournament in Richmond, Va. this month, a major youth tournament where Bethesda and PDA teams were among the most impressive performers in the elite girls’ divisions.
“We played together in college and I talk to Davey probably once every three days. We’re very good friends.”
A U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer since 1990, Schellscheidt was the first-ever coach to earn U.S. Soccer’s “A” level coaching certification, and he went on to hold top roles at every level of the national team system. The German-American guru coined the famous phrase “The game is the best teacher,” and his lifelong efforts to foster fluid, expressive soccer inspired generations of future coaches.
“We’ve always been shaped by our coach at Seton Hall, Manfred Schellscheidt, who was always a proponent of soccer – playing soccer and passing soccer,” noted Nolan, who coached at PDA earlier in his career. “So me and Mike both got our beliefs in how the game should be played from him.”
Both men seem to gauge the results of their respective programs primarily by player development. Yet while both have been encouraged by a rising standard of play across the youth scene, the abiding hunger for results remains a source of frustration for Nolan.
“You’re starting to see it more now, in club [soccer],” he said of the technical, pass-happy style that Schellscheidt preached. “Unfortunately there’s always such a pressure to win that style goes out the window, and a win-at-all-costs mentality is adopted by many teams. And it’s not really helping the kids become better players, and it’s not really enjoyable for them to play that way and it’s not preparing them for college.
“So if you’re strong enough in your own beliefs, you want your teams to play the right way so the kids can go on to college and be able to play. That’s the plan.”
As the girls’ director of coaching at PDA, which has played a role in the grooming of national teamers like Alyssa O’Reilly, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath while also routinely competing for youth national championships, O’Neill doesn’t see it as an either-or proposition.
“The standard for us is not just winning, it’s playing good soccer,” he said. “We have high expectations – we can win some games, but it’s how we do it. So the soccer, for us, has to be good. And I think that says a lot about us as a club, because all our teams play. We believe that you can still play good soccer and get good results.”
O’Neill and Nolan duel every year when their universities face off in Big East play, and they also match wits when Bethesda and PDA meet in ECNL games and the occasional friendly. Their U-16 teams played in their final match of the Jefferson Cup’s Championship flight on Sunday, one of the most anticipated contests of the tournament in that age group.
Nolan called the meeting with PDA Slammers, the defending U.S. Youth Soccer National Champions, a “challenge” but his Bethesda Freedom squad held a 1-0 advantage for a good chunk of the game, only to be undone by a furious late rally as PDA leveled, then stole a 2-1 victory in the final minutes when left back Michelle Wiltse whipped a corner kick inside the front post for an improbable finish.
“We just kind of have a lot of mental toughness and that’s what the third game [of the weekend] is all about for us,” said PDA midfielder Lauren Dimes, one of the team’s many sought-after 2014 recruits. “We always talk about our standard – we need to set the bar high. If we don’t meet the standard, it’s disappointing for us.”
The final score that matters most is how many of these teams’ players will advance to the upper echelons of the game – and when they do, they’ll be continuing a legacy that dates back to 1964, when a 23-year-old Schellscheidt arrived from Germany to visit his aunt in New Jersey, and was convinced to stay and coach for a lifetime.