I finally got everything posted I had wanted to from this weekend, so now I can post about the fun we had this past weekend. As many of you know, I coach a co-ed U10 Recreational team in our local league and they’ve had a really good season this Fall. We decided to take them to the North Carolina Recreational State Cup, not because we thought we might win but rather to give the kids a new experience. Since the Rec Cup is limited to Rec only players (our multi-rostered Challenge players were ineligible), it was a true ‘Recreational’ tournament. So the kids on our team who only play rec ball would have a chance to travel to a tournament and play against teams from across the state. Needless to say they were VERY excited. Me? I was nervous – this would be my first tournament too.

As our regular season wound down, we started to practice harder and focus on the cup. We had two guest players join us to fill in our roster since the Challenge kids couldn’t go (including my eldest), so they also joined us for practice and everyone worked hard. As the date drew closer, nobody knew exactly what to expect. The kids were REALLY excited to be going out of town, staying at hotels, and playing soccer somewhere new. So we took the field Saturday morning in 40 degree weather wondering what exactly we had gotten ourselves into. When we walked off the field at 4PM Sunday afternoon, they had won three of their four matches and earned 2nd Place as Cup Finalists in the U10 Boys Division:

The MYSA U10 Storm - 2006 Rec Cup Finalists

MYSA U10 Storm posing for the cameras with their silver cups

I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of them. Not just because they were successful, but also to see how they bonded together as a team and worked harder in each match.

So for those of you curious about how the weekend went, here’s the nitty gritty… (We took some additional pictures too)

First, there are no Co-ed divisions in the State Cup. We had 5 boys and 4 girls and participated in the U10 Boys division against all boys teams (one team had one girl if I recall). Trust me – I’m not saying having girls put us at a disadvantage. In fact, we got an advantage from it which I’ll explain in a minute. Equitable playing time with a minimum 50% play time was also in effect which was great – everyone would get to play a lot and experience this and all the teams had to sub their players.

The good news was getting to the fields was easy – straight shot down a state highway (150). So we headed out in a reasonable amount of time and went to the parking lot we knew – the one we had used the previous night during registration. First rookie mistake. Not only did we park way in the boonies, our match was on the absolute opposite end of the complex and it was a BIG complex. Thank goodness for trams. Soccer Dad was just a tad stressed when he finally got to the U9/U10 fields that were over hill and down dale. Soccer Dad was learning stuff quickly!

We took the field against our first team Saturday with temps in the low 40′s. The saving grace was the fields were down a hill and sheltered by trees so there was no wind. We faced the eventual champions in our first match and they were very good. We held them to one goal into the 20th minute and seemed to possess the ball much longer. However, our defense was struggling to contain their forwards and eventually they managed to get around our defense and streak for the goal. Our strikers, on the other hand, did VERY well maintaining possession, but didn’t seem to want to let the ball go by shooting. We played with the ball WAY too much in their box, especially since half my team can hit the corner from the 18 in practice. The lack of offside in U10 at the state cup (we play offside in our league) took some getting used to. Within the first minute there was a cherry picker in our box, while our style of play is to push the defense up to midfield on the attack to seal off half the field. This forced us into more of a 1-1-3 formation, which worked, but not as well and took some getting used to. We got beat handily 1-6. That said, I don’t recall more than maybe one time where any team was able to hit a cherry picker for a goal. But it DID affect how the team played and spread out on the field. It definitely pulled one defender out of active play. But their forwards were FAST and we really weren’t looking up enough to see where our passes were going – they always seemed to hit an opponent. We definitely got outplayed and beaten, though I think my kids did a GREAT job on ball control and possession. Most goals against us were breakaways and the kids never folded – fighting till the final whistle.

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The Storm play match #2 on Saturday at the Rec State Cup

The kids didn’t seem to broken up over it though. They had played VERY hard. The one thing they did mention was the game was more physical. “Coach my sides hurt from getting elbowed so much!” As a coach, I wanted them to experience a more physical game so they’d get used to it. So far, so good. Now we just had to get some lunch.

Yes, I’m going to tell you about lunch, because it was fun. We hit the local fairgrounds for a BBQ festival that was happening along with a car and motorcycle show and best of all – lawnmower races. No, I’m not kidding :) Not all the kids went, but those that did had a blast checking out the fancy hot rod cars and such. Only disappointment was you couldn’t buy BBQ from the competitors in the contest, you had to get it in a main building from a local BBQ place. Oh well. Note to folks from NC – you’ll never convince me that western tomato based BBQ is better than eastern vinegar based. Sorry!

So we return for match two to find the ultra cold weather wasn’t as cold as expected. I stressed to the team that we were ruling on possession, but we HAD to shoot and our defense had to make sure they contained until help arrived to prevent breakaways.  They did just that and came up with a 5-2 win, scoring the first three goals of the match. They left the complex in high spirits. They had just won a match and proven to themselves that they were at the same level as their opponents.

The trick would be Sunday. You just knew the kids wouldn’t sleep much Saturday night. Sure enough, they were a bit tired Sunday morning and a couple had eaten too much breakfast and didn’t feel too hot. But they played tough and after taking a 1-1 tie to halftime, punched in two more to seal a 3-1 victory. The team they faced was quick and also very good on defense. They did not pressure our goal much but our kids just couldn’t seem to get a series of good passes and a shot together as the pressure in the the middle of the field was intense. It was a hard fought and exciting match.

So here we were, 2-1, and one team left. I was fairly sure that if we beat the last team, we’d take second place. But being a n00b, I had no idea what that meant and I’d forgotten to ask. Was there any recognition for 2nd place? If so, what did we need to do? Where did we go? The only league officials by our little cluster of fields were referees and they didn’t know. Thankfully a parent hiked up to the main tents before the 4th game and found out that yes, 2nd place would be recognized. So the kids took the field a little tired, but excited because they had been playing VERY well. A little more shooting was all we needed. We were still playing with the ball too much near the goal instead of taking shots or passing to an open shooter. So I gave them a quick pep talk and let them know if they won this match they’d possibly win 2nd place in the tournament.

To say they came out on fire would be an understatement. Remember when I mentioned we had four girls on our team while the rest of the teams were boys? Let me pause here to talk about that a bit.

First, not only did we have four girls, one of them was a guest player that we asked to join us. She was very quick, could reliably hit the corner from the wing, and had good foot skills. I wanted two players from the same team that knew each other and the second guest player was a keeper (since one of our ineligible kids was a good keeper), but he also had a strong leg and footwork. At this age the girls and boys are often on equal footing skill, speed, and intensity wise. So I had absolutely no worries about selecting a girl as a guest player. The fun part was, not all the kids on the OTHER teams knew this. I heard more than once “Dude – they have GIRRRRLS on their team!” like they were in for a cakewalk. We didn’t just have A girl, we had four. “Man their team is like half girls!” All I could do was grin – they had no idea.

They quickly learned that one girl on our team would be a key ball handler and scoring threat. She burned her share of players with a big grin and scored her share of goals. One of our key defenders also has a kick that is a rocket and we push her up into offense often to take long shots from outside the box. The improvement in her foot quickness during this tournament was amazing as she chased down attackers and reliably stripped them of the ball at a full sprint. Once she found herself with the ball at the corner of the box and cracked off a shot. The defender saw her winding up and charged figuring he’d deflect the shot that couldn’t be that hard. WHAM! He definitely went home with seam marks after that shot. She didn’t get left open much after that. This was my most embarrassing moment. The instant she took the shot, I yelled ‘Yeah! DO that AGAIN‘ because we were FINALLY shooting, but at the same instant the defender went down due to the stinging. He took it full on. I didn’t mean to bean a kid again, but it sounded bad and the other coach stared daggers at me. It’s all in the timing.

The best part was the play of one of our other girls who isn’t quite as aggressive around the ball as her teammates. She puts herself in perfect scoring position at an angle to the goal time after time after time, but the opponents often see her play and quickly disregard her, instead double teaming the ball handler. BIG mistake. In the last match, our kids fed her the ball in quick succession and bang – she scored in the 2nd minute. Funny thing was, the team didn’t mark her after that and voila – goal #2 in the 7th minute. In the end, we scored a total of 16 goals and our girls accounted for 5 of them.

At halftime the kids were hopping up and down, very excited and pumped up. I think the Soccer Moms were slipping them Red Bull on the sidelines. On the kickoff for the 2nd half, the opponents expected a pass after the first touch. Instead, our center took off like a shot right towards the goal and by the time the other team realized what was going on – goal at the 0:05 mark. They were playing their hearts out.  I was thrilled because my players were making VERY strategic decisions on the field on their own. Two of the girls stayed in the entire second half and the rest came on at the 10 minute mark once I’d gotten the boys their required time. They had an absolute blast, though I’m not so sure our opponent did facing 4 girls and and two boys to run out the second half.

When the whistle blew the kids were smiling from ear to ear and I was absolutely beaming. Their placement was meaningless – they had lost early on and every single match gotten better and better. Every player had improved in a noticeable way, be it foot quickness, tactical thinking, passing, or goal keeping. Perfect case in point. One of our girls swore up and down this season that no soccer ball would touch her head. The one time we worked on headers and I got things started gently bouncing the ball off her head at 6 inches away, tears welled up in her eyes. Heading was NOT her thing. During our last match, a ball got cleared towards her and it was a good 15+ feet in the air. She stepped right under it and BAM! headed it right back towards the goal. The parents went crazy. Everyone on the team had moments like that.

And that right there is what made coming to this tournament worth it, even if we had lost every game. The kids had a great time on and off the field. They faced very good teams and played in very intense matches and never folded, even when they lost. Everyone of them learned something and some had breakouts which are always great to see. Based on that alone I would recommend this to any Rec coach out there with a decent team. It was so much fun and exposed the kids to something they hadn’t done before. Yes, this is ‘just Rec’ and it’s all about fun. But you CAN go to one tournament a year, have fun, and learn a lot without changing what Rec is all about.

Of course, the fact that the kids knew that SOMETHING would happen if they won 2nd place made them sort of giddy with anticipation. The tournament hosts were great. The rest of the tournament had wound down, with only the U9 Girls and U10 Boys left to get awards and wrapping up play in the boonies. They had brought both trams to our fields and waited until we got everyone together. The Storm commandeered the Red Tram and named it ‘The Storm Tram’ for the ride back to the main complex.

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The Storm take 'The Storm Tram' back to the main complex

We obviously had no idea what to expect. So we arrived at the tents and were told they were still certifying results and they’d let us know what was next soon. When it was announced we had, in fact, taken second place, the kids looked at each other with these looks of disbelief – it really hadn’t sunk in that they had done so well. The NCYSA did a great awards ceremony with the champions getting gold cups and the finalists getting silver cups. Congratulations to the Indian Trail Bulldogs who took the championship trophy home!

The best part of them getting recognized was we had to take the tram back to the U10 fields where all the cars were and the kids got to circle through the complex chanting their team name and stomping their feet. Before you say poor sportsmanship, it wasn’t that at all. At this point the only teams left in the complex were those that had finished in the top two spots of their division, so we left them yell and scream and enjoy themselves. A huge shout out to the tram driver for taking us back out to our cars near the U9/U10 fields after a long weekend! It would have been a LOOOOONG walk.

So there you have it. The kids had a blast, learned a LOT, and managed to bring home the U10 Boys Finalist trophy. I know some people say that in youth soccer all the coaches care about is getting trophies. Maybe some, but for me the trophy was meaningless. It was what went into getting it and seeing how much the team had grown in two short days that meant everything. They’ll remember this experience for a long time and I think it was a very good experience for them.

For many of you this is old hat. You’ve attended dozens of tournaments, stayed in hotels you’d rather not recall, and had your kids experience the ‘thrill of victory and agony of defeat’, but not everyone has, especially those of us just moving up within youth soccer from swarm ball. So I threw together an email that I sent to our rec league coaches highlighting some of the things I had learned in case any of them decided to do this next year or even next Spring at another tournament. This post is long enough, but I’ll include it anyway :)

This past weekend was quite the whirlwind and was definitely a trial by fire for me. While many of our Challenge coaches have already done the tournament thing, many of we Rec coaches have not, so I figured I’d pass on some thoughts in case any of you make the trek to Shelby (or some other tournament) in the future.

Lets see… First – as the Challenge coaches well know, tournaments and travel mean paperwork. We had to have team rosters, match rosters, medical forms (including new ones with our team name for guest players), guest player rosters, and player passes. Like an idiot, I left most of the medical forms at home, but was able to get them faxed to the hotel. These are probably one of the most important pieces of paper to have since they give you, the coach, the ability to get a player medical care if the parents are not there. We have all the medical forms on file so if you travel, we can get you copies. I probably should have done a team binder, but a folder sufficed.

Check in was fairly painless (my form screwup aside ;) ) The biggest thing I forgot to ask during the coaches meeting was what happened at the end – i.e. which teams got recognized (just 1st, 1st and 2nd, etc) and where/when that was. I really hadn’t thought about it since I really hadn’t thought about where our team might place. When we realized we likely had 2nd place, one of the parents had to track down a tournament official to ask if our team would get any type of recognition and where to go since our matches were played a fair distance from the main complex.

Which brings up the next point – get to know the complex and ask specifically about parking in relation to your matches. I didn’t so we parked with the hordes in the main parking area before our first match only to find we were at the extreme opposite end of the complex and had to catch a tram to the fields, losing valuable warmup time. Turned out there was street side parking a couple hundred yards from the U9/U10 field area which we used for the rest of the weekend.

Though I somehow managed to be later than I had hoped getting to each match, I told the kids to get there about 45 minutes prior to game time. This ensured by 30 minutes till game time most of the team was there. Bring pinnies for ‘away’ colors. We had one match against another red team, though they were home so they had to wear pinnies.

Most surprising thing? They allowed slide tackles even though the state rules recommend NOT allowing slides. Actually, now that I look at the rules, no slide tackles is listed under USYS recommendations, but it’s not forbidden in the actual rules. The other teams slid (and did it well enough you could tell they had done it before in their leagues) and thank goodness my team had prepared for tackles a bit practicing for their scrimmage against the U10 Storm Challenge team (Thanks Leigh!) 2nd surprising rule issue – passes to the goalie never got called, even when it was blatant.

The big thing for the kids was no offside for U10. That really took a little getting used to. The first team we played had cherry pickers planted in front of our goal from the start, forcing us to pull a player back to mark them. We were used to pushing defenders up to help attacks and this prevented that and made it harder to shutdown midfield. Granted, no offside never really helped since the bulk of the other team’s goals came from 1v1 beating of our last defender (both players crash the ball and it squirts towards our goal, etc) Anyway – it was a factor, but the kids figured it out pretty quick. You could tell the rest of the teams we faced played offside at home because any attempt to cherry pick was half hearted (and short lived since we finally managed to shutdown midfield) Thus both teams played as if offside was in effect resulting in more players involved in the play.

Which leads us to the next point – field size. The NCYSA allows fields to be a variety of sizes since leagues have all sorts of facility types available. In our case the fields were much shorter, but about as wide as ours. The center ring couldn’t have been more than 3 yards from the penalty kick arc. I didn’t walk them off but I doubt the fields were much longer than 45-50 yards. So the kids had to adjust to a shorter field and use the wings more (which was good) For players used to having space and making runs, the shorter field really cramped that style of play and made lateral and low angle passes the norm. Again, they adjusted, but probably is worth practicing once (moving goals in, etc)

Food… It’s a trip and while the tournament is the main reason you are there, the parents want to have fun too. So the kids will often go to places with HEAVY food for breakfast and/or lunch. I should have encouraged the team as a whole to eat well, but light, for breakfast and lunch. We had at least two players complain of upset stomachs which could have been due to what they had eaten earlier. This was on Sunday (had it been the first match I’d chalk it up to nerves – the kids WERE nervous) Encourage the parents to get the kids eating decent and let dinner be when they eat the greasy food.

Spectator restrictions. While this tournament had parents and teams separated by the field like we do in rec (teams on one side, parents on the other) the parents had to squeeze in between mid field and the penalty area. This ensured parents weren’t near the corner flags during kicks, but packed everyone in pretty tight!

Most important non soccer item to bring? Cell phone charger. I forgot my AC adapter and had my phone die on me – twice, which made it tough for my parents to get ahold of me at times (could only charge in the car)

All in all this was an absolutely fantastic experience and I’d say that even if we had lost every match. The kids had a ball, got to play against teams they had never seen before, and got to experience soccer in a way many never have (or will unless they move to Challenge) The Rec cup is not as prestigious or as heavily attended as the Challenge and Classic Cups and that’s a shame. I think it’s great for Rec kids to have a chance to compete in an environment beyond their normal home matches. 50% playing time WAS enforced and in effect and the teams HAD to be the original rec teams from the regular season (plus up to 2 guest players) No Challenge players. Now granted, this results in some disparity – the team that won our division comes from an association with no Challenge program – I suspect many of these kids were Challenge caliber, but still in Rec with nowhere to go locally. But hey – we held them to one goal for 20 minutes, faced them right out of the gate, and suffered from a bad case of “Would rather dribble around the box instead of shoot” syndrome. It happens.

This isn’t about trophies – these kids will remember this past weekend for a while simply because it proved to them they can play against teams from outside Mebane. I chuckled at the comments I got. “Coach – they’re all BOYS” We had 4 girls and they played their hearts out, scoring 5 of our 16 goals. “Coach, they’re so much BIGGER” In fact we had one of the bigger teams there – our four girls were taller than many of their opponents and are some of our team’s tallest players. “Coach my sides hurt from all the elbowing” The play was definitely more physical than their average rec match. Not by much, but enough so they noticed. But they adjusted and learned to stand their ground and hop back up PDQ after going down.

My proudest moment as a coach this weekend was when one of my girls who hasn’t scored more than one goal this past season, despite being in the right place, wide open, all the time, scored two goals in our final match because not only was she attacking the ball more than she ever had, the rest of the players were passing to her. Even better? She swore she would NEVER head the ball and avoided doing it all season. In one match she used her head to advance a low ball, but later on in the final match when a punt or clearing kick sailed towards her from 15+ feet up, she ran under it and headed it right towards the goal without flinching. I think the parents got more excited over that than her goals.

I’d be curious to hear what the U10 coaches would feel about smaller rosters. Most of our opponents carried 9 players which is how many we had with us as well. It made subbing easier and got the kids more playing time. The danger is no shows – did you ever have 8 or less kids show up for a match this year? The wildcard in using smaller rosters in U10 would be the need for more coaches…

Anyway – I wanted to share some coaching perspective on our trip in case any of you consider going in the future. It was a great experience. The fact that our league has 2 year wide divisions and they are co-ed makes it tricky (since they only have girls and ‘mixed’ divisions where the mixed is boys with a girl here or there from what I saw) However if you find your U10 or even U12 rec team is doing well and only has one or two Challenge players, I’d highly recommend going to this or some other rec only tournament at least once during the year. Even if you only win one match – I think the kids learn a lot from it. I know ours did.

Coach Mike

I know this got REALLY long, but there was so much that went on I didn’t want to miss anything. I don’t know where I’ll be coaching next fall or if I’ll ever take another team to the Rec Cup. I do know this – I’ll remember this weekend for some time. It was a great experience!