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Tournaments Aug 30, 2013

PWSI Toys For Toys tourney reveals US youths’ growing proficiency

HAYMARKET, Va. — There was plenty of generosity and good spirits around several Northern Virginia field complexes last weekend. On the first of two weekends of Prince William Soccer, Inc.’s annual PWSI Toys for Tots tournament, the donation boxes were overflowing with contributions.

Teams and parents seemed to know it was a preseason tournament as they got reacquainted with club teammates. But don’t let the name fool you. The PWSI Toys For Tots tournament is full of young teams and players who aren’t playing around. A lot of these kids can play, and it’s great to see so early in the fall season, especially for the future of soccer as a whole in North America.

Youth soccer isn’t supposed to be about the scores, especially at the younger ages. It’s supposed to be about the future, particularly at the travel level, where every practice and game is a potential step in the player development pyramid.

I don’t envy tournament directors who have to seed teams this time of year after a summer of tryouts and player movement. At no age is that seeding more difficult than Under-13, where many teams are playing 11 v 11 for their first or second season.

Watching under-13 games with a match reporter’s eye is not something we do often here at, but we also can’t always go report on the next college scholarship. In fact, if we’re really doing our job covering elite youth soccer, it certainly makes sense to look at how those scholarship-chasing players at big showcases are being developed when it matters.

+Visit’s Toys For Tots Tournament page here ]

And it’s the U-13 age group where raw talent starts transform into real skill, molded by three-plus years of pay-to-play for most, with two to three nights a week of training and dozens of tournaments already under their belts. It’s here where we should be looking for signs of stability in the foundation of the development pyramid.

While most of the Toys for Tots events at younger ages had pretty even matchups, a few teams – mostly “A” teams fielded by hosts PWSI – were always going to win their games big, and have to be favorites to hoist another of many tournament championships likely already won, and with more to come in the years ahead.

But if you’re really watching some of these games and players on all teams looking for the signs of talent turning into skill, where decision-making and the ability to execute it matter most, there is plenty to enjoy, even in a blowout.

Whether on a winning or losing team, how is a player’s first touch? Do they get in on the floor as fast as possible, touch away from pressure and get their head up? Or do they still do the two-foot hop shin trap where the second touch is usually a tackle?

Do they dive in on defense with a wild swipe, or do they apply pressure and slow things down until the dribbler makes a bad touch right to them?

Do they dribble through traffic because their head is down whenever they touch the ball, and then kick it long when they have 30 yards of space in front of them they could have attacked alone? Or, do they do the opposite of both – passing before they’re pressured and attacking space when it’s there for the taking?

The game of soccer is really quite simple. If you watch players with an eye for picking out the traits that align with the principle, the score doesn’t matter as much. If the coaches see the game this way and work to nurture those traits, the game will always come easiest to those players in the future.

The problem is when teams are coached simply to kick and run and score with a big strong forward, the kids’ futures are the ones that suffer. That style of soccer does not translate to the quality skills and thinking needed to succeed at higher levels of play. The teams that won big last weekend – that I saw, at least – did not win with kick and run. They won playing really good soccer, with the ball on the floor and series of connecting possessions full of the right decisions.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to watch Toys For Tots action,  even with some games finishing with lopsided scores. They have players on these teams who are already thinking and seeing the game the right way. While some opponents couldn’t supply the pressure necessary to truly test these other skilled players, at least you could see they know what to do, and that’s half the battle.

For the teams that might feel down about being on the wrong side of a big score at this year’s event, it might not be easy to see now, but if their coaches take the right message away it should be that playing against superior opponents creates the best opportunity for learning. Like Roger Banister and the 4-minute mile barrier, once you know something is possible, that something is easier to achieve for yourself.

Just like playing with toys when we’re young is about developing the mind, this year’s Toys For Tots event should have some learning for everyone. So bring those toys along and put them in the bins this weekend, because it’s clear the only toy these kids need any more is a round ball and a dream of climbing the pyramid. Enjoy the ride.

+Find T4T’s full schedule, results and standings information here ]

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