Like many a Canadian sports governing body, Ontario Soccer has struggled over the course of the past decade or so in trying to find the perfect balance to strike, introducing the Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) model into the youth initiatives in their sport.
They may not have it 100% perfect, just yet, but feedback from some of the coaches at younger levels this year is encouraging.
For the first time ever, the Greater Sudbury Soccer Club (GSSC) is fielding teams between the ages of U9 to U12 in the Huronia District Soccer League (HDSL), with teams aged U13 and up having been part of the mix for a few years now, already.
Where the GSSC was running with a complete practice-only curriculum, with no game play other than perhaps an in-house festival with no scores to be kept in recent years, this new initiative looks to find a happy middle ground.
“I think that in terms of Ontario Soccer, they recognize there's room for balance,” noted long-time local soccer advocate and current parent and coach, Dino Moretta. “These aren't competitive teams, they are pools of players. That's how we're approaching it, and I think that's how the other clubs are approaching it too.”
There is no doubt that the priority, at these ages, remains skill development. At some point, however, most everyone agrees with the notion that skills need to be tested in game situations. The challenge is finding a way to do it without reverting back to the troublesome option of having ultra-competitive coaches seeking to build future World Cup rosters with pre-teen talent.
“We are encouraged to keep track of scores, because you still want to win the game, you just don't want to win it at all costs,” said Moretta. “To be honest with you, I've been very impressed with all of the coaches that I've coached against.”
Every effort is being made to try and ensure that player development is offered uniformly across the entire roster, even if it comes at the expense of team success, on occasion. “One of the mandates of LTPD is that every player gets a chance to play every position, not necessarily every position in every game, but you should be rotating players, even goalies,” said Moretta.
Likewise, traditional soccer rules have been altered to allow for more time on the ball for the youngsters, creating more opportunities for the growth of core skills such as dribbling, passing and shooting. “You have to retreat back one third of the field on a goal kick, for instance, and you cannot attack until their player has actually received the ball,” Moretta explained.
“In all of my years of soccer, that's probably one of the most impactful rules, in a good way, that they have made. It allows you to play out of the back, which is something that's important at all levels of soccer. It gives players a bit of time, at the back, to take a touch, look up, and then pass the ball.”
While all of the GSSC players who are taking part in HDSL play also practice and compete with in-house teams during the week, Moretta noted that there is far more roster flexibility with these ages than with traditional competitive lineups, allowing for as many as twenty to thirty players to enjoy the out of town game experience, with offerings made as much based on a child's excitement and enjoyment of soccer as their individual skill level.
Coach Max Massimiliano and the GSSC Impact U12 girls are now four games into their HDSL campaign, gradually adjusting to a different template, with roughly half of this team having worked out with Brian Ashton and the Northern Soccer Academy program last summer.
“It's quite a bit different,” noted 10 year old Chloe Leduc, a soccer player since the age of five. “Here, at the end of practices, we do scrimmages, and then there's an HDSL team, and we have our own GSSC team. It makes it fun, because I get to play often.”
In that sense, the particular drills that became a mainstay for the grade five student at Foyer Jeunesse in 2018 must now be put into practice, and done so in an environment that forces a move towards a greater attention to detail, perfecting key soccer skills. “In the Valley, last year, we played 11 v 11 on the big fields,” said Leduc.
“The thing about the big fields is that you have a lot of space and you could really take your time. Now, you have to pass it quicker. With a smaller field, it's easier for the other team to get on you.” In the U12 HDSL loop, games are played in a seven on seven format, typically on fields that are roughly half the size of the traditional adult pitch in Sudbury.
No wonder then that communication is key. Of course, in the Massimiliano household, soccer communication is pretty much a daily occurrence, with no less less than four members of this team travelling to practices from the same domicile. Twins Ava and Mya are joined by younger sister Bella (roughly 15 months younger), and their father, the coach, with each of the girls showcasing a very unique skill set, differing notably from their siblings.
“It's fun to be a soccer family,” said Ava. “If you're struggling with something, they can help you, and you always have someone to practice with, a lot.” It's also helped in terms of quickly developing a certain chemistry on the field, with all of the players on the team spending plenty of time on exercises aimed to assist player cohesiveness on the pitch.
“We're working a lot on moving off the ball,” said Ava. “When we pass it to someone, we go to space so that we can support, and that they can pass back.” The U12 Impact girls are back in action on July 6th, facing the Huntsville Strikers and Barrie FC, on the road.
In local competitive play last weekend, the Impact U14 boys enjoyed an outstanding weekend, blanking both the Bradford Eagles (4-0) and South Simcoe United (11-0). Chad Tullio (five goals) and Seth Gardner (4) were among the primary offensive catalysts, though coach Evan Phillips also noted the work of keeper Niko Tuttle in the initial outing.
Their female club counterparts found themselves piecing together an equally productive weekend, as the U14 Impact girls edged Barrie 2-1 in a Cup match on Saturday (Sydney Coe scored twice for Sudbury), and thumped South Simcoe United by the exact same score as the boys.
Highlights included the first goal of the season for Amanda Bourdon, converting a great pass from Alex Buttery, as well as two goal efforts from Sophia Oomen, Brooke Dugas and Kiara Levac.