Pretty much raised on the sport of soccer in his native England, GSSC (Greater Sudbury Soccer Club) Impact U12 boys coach Nigel Croome has no issue when Canadian soccer officials tap into some overseas knowledge from folks who have been doing this right for a very, very long time.
“Coming from England, this is a very European way of training and playing soccer,” said Croome. “The big clubs – Barcelona, Juventus, A.C. Milan, Bayern Munich – they play small-sided games with their academies. They don't play competitive games until 12 years old.”
In recent years, with the introduction of the Long-Term Player Development model, the structure of the sport in Sudbury has somewhat mirrored a very tried and tested approach. “At U13, the kids here actually go to competitive,” explained Croome. “Until then, they are strictly development.”
“This is basically a transitional team. We're still development, we still play each player in each position, but we do a little bit more positioning, more tactical, bringing that into the game so that we don't go straight from grass roots and then play competitive teams who know positioning, counter attacking, offside trap, stuff like that.”
The reality for his roster is that while some of his youthful followers might well be three or four generations deep into the process, chances are that somewhere in their ancestry, there are deeply rooted ties to the game in areas of the world where soccer is a religion.
“My grandpa used to coach my uncle, and my uncle still kind of plays, and I think he started when he was three and now he's like forty something,” explained Luca Cucullo of his family soccer lineage. “They kind of showed me on TV all of the positions and how the players constantly moved around, and all of the passing they do.”
Supremely proud of his Italian heritage, Cucullo is but one of this devoted group of a dozen pre-teen athletes who are already displaying a very solid grasp of some of the next-level teachings to which coach Croome alluded. “It's important to move because it creates more space, which makes it easier to get the ball and easier to make plays when you're open,” noted the 12 year-old student at Lo-Ellen Park Intermediate School.
“With movement, you also have to look down at the ball when you are passing, and then look up to where you are going to pass it, and then pass it,” said Cucullo. “You can pass it anywhere. They can be short passes, or they can be ten yards long, but I like to stay with medium length passes, because I don't think I have enough power in my passes to get it really far yet.”
And while he is clearly mindful of his role, offensively, Cucullo is also at home when given a chance to patrol the interior of the defensive line, understanding his responsibilities in providing support. “You have to move from side to side, so I find that a bit funner,” he said. “When they're coming down the side and they beat the person, you automatically have to step in and stop them.”
Teammate London Croome is thankful in knowing that Cucullo and others have his back. While he is in the midst of rotating throughout the pitch this year, the 11 year old St Benedict student is looking forward to taking the time to truly perfect his role a little further up-field in 2020. “Next year is when you get assigned positions, attacking mid for me,” he said.
“I like scoring goals and I like being in the midfield. I just like attacking mid, when you're right behind the strikers but ahead of the mids – it's a little bit of both.” That said, the talkative young man who suggested he first started playing soccer at the age of one is more than willing to accept the benefits of a more broadly brushed positional training approach for now.
“All of the positions are equally important,” he suggested. “This is a good thing for your development. You get well-rounded. At defence, you get to become good in your defensive area, and you're good in the offensive area when you're striker and stuff, and at mid, you get to clear the ball and pass it.”
For his part, coach Croome must smile, at least inwardly, to hear his young protegees discussing with fervor the intricacies of the game of soccer. “I'm more inclined as a coach to take kids who are more interested in learning the game, showing up for practices, putting their heart and soul into it, because the skills will eventually come from those players, because they want it,” he said.
“Some of the ones who are more naturally gifted tend to drop off as other players develop, when others get caught up. The ones that will kick a ball around at home, that will take a soccer ball with them wherever they go, those are the ones that you want – the passionate ones, the ones with heart.”
And yet, for as much as his crew can display a serious understanding of the sport, the camaraderie of childhood is sure to jump out, from time to time. “I need more power in my shot, and I think I need to run a little faster,” said London Croome. “I'm a pretty slow runner.”
“We just need to chop his hair short,” interjected Cucullo. “It's like six pounds of hair!”
Just the kind of banter that those who conceive a framework like LTPD, likely at this stage of development and probably for years to come, are thankful to hear.
The 2019 Impact U12 boys roster includes Boston Ranger, Braxton Ragogna, Cohen Paquette, Ibrahim Najem, Jacob Plante, John Contini, Keynan Kydd, London Croome, Luca Cucullo, Mason McLaughlin, Nathan Nadeau and Paolo Grossi.