A Marin County, California, team of 14-year-olds spent a fortnight this Summer overturning much of what we thought we knew about the relative merits of youth soccer programs in Europe and America.
Italy and Spain are the last two World Cup champions, bastions of European soccer supremacy. The Marin FC 15U team entered tournaments in those two countries and marched to the championship game in each while the soccer world was focussed on World Cup 2010.
It’s not supposed to be that way. The European teams expect to feast on American competition. Think the Washington Generals vs. the Harlem Globetrotters. Here’s what usually happens when young American boys teams cross the ocean: they win one or two, maybe get a draw, and come back home, exclaiming about the merits of the competition, the wonderful experience of playing and traveling in foreign lands and, if they’re lucky, commenting on how cute the girls on the Swedish team were. Seldom do they have to worry about overweight charges on their flights back home because of the extra hardware they’ve earned.
The Marin FC boys turned that model on its head. They swept undefeated through their group in the Italy Cup, held in Cesenatico, Italy, before losing in the championship game 1-0 to a team from Jarfalla, Sweden.
They then entered the Copa Catalunya in Tordera, Spain, where they lost their first game, but then swept through their group to earn a place in the playoffs. There they dominated their quarterfinal and semifinal opponents before falling in the championship to a Norwegian team in a game decided on penalty kicks after the match ended in a 1-1 tie.
Even as they were making believers of their European counterparts, they had time to notice how cute the Swedish girls were at the Italy Cup. And they brought home some handsome trophies.
Girls soccer teams from the U.S. tend to fare better in overseas tournaments than boys teams. Marin FC team manager John Novick attributed that disparity to the emphasis given to training. “In Europe, boys get most of the training. There’s not as much emphasis on girls programs. Here, we give equal attention to both groups.” [See the accompanying story to learn how your team or player could gain international experience.]Marin coach Rick Fullerton added to that perspective. “In Europe, there are elite soccer academies that are sponsored by the professional clubs.” Players in these elite academies get advanced year-around training and are groomed for playing at the highest level in their country. “We don’t have anything like that in the States,” Fullerton said. “We have lots of serious soccer programs, but nothing that compares to those elite academies.” He also pointed out that some of the players his team faced would eventually be recruited for academy training.
So how did the Marin FC team do so well? None of the elite academies entered their best teams in the tournaments in which the Marin club played. If you were to draw from that fact the implication that the Marin success could be attributed to weaker competition, you would be on the wrong side of the evidence.
For one thing, the Marin FC team had never played a match together before the first game of the Italy Cup. Ten of the players were on Fullerton’s team this season. Five players were drawn from a year-older group because the age cutoffs in Europe are different than in the U.S. Here, playing ages are determined by the age of the player on August 1. In Europe, the determination is made by the age on January 1. So players with birthdays between January 1 and August 1 were eligible for tournament play. One younger player was added to complete a roster of 16 players.
Fullerton pointed out that having a strong nucleus of players with a history of playing together enabled the team to be cohesive from the start. But it is still worthy of note that the team had never played a game together until they took the pitch in Italy.
Here’s something else to consider when weighing the competitiveness of the teams Marin FC faced: some of the teams took the pitch decked out in uniforms with sponsor patches. These were not rag-tag pick-up clubs. They were well funded teams. As Fullerton pointed out, “They were strong, well run teams. They were serious clubs.”Novick commented on the sponsorships by explaining, “Here, there’s lots of competition for corporate sponsorships. You go into a Wells Fargo office and maybe the guy in charge doesn’t like sports, or maybe he only likes lacrosse and football. In Europe, everyone likes sports. But there’s only one sport they like: soccer.”
That’s not enough evidence for you? Let’s look at how other U.S. teams did in the two tournaments Marin FC entered. Competition is divided by age classifications to keep the playing field level. In the Italy Cup, two other teams were from the U.S., playing in younger classifications. One played for fifth place and the other played for third place. The under-15s, where Marin FC played, had the largest field and they survived the competition to play for the championship.
The U.S. results of the Copa Catalunya were even more dramatic. The other three U.S. teams competing there failed to advance out of their group. Meanwhile, Marin FC was tying a Norwegian team for top honors in its group and winning two playoff matches before bowing to Lev Ham on penalty kicks in the final.
It’s a small sample size, but the Marin FC kids are the outliers. They clearly outperformed the other U.S. teams, lending credence to the conclusion that their results stemmed from a superior brand of soccer.
Novick entered the team in the tournaments with what he believed were realistic expectations. “I would have been happy if we won half our games and maybe got into a playoff.” Instead the team posted a 12-3-2 record and advanced to both tournament championship games.
Here’s the swath they cut through their group at the Italy Cup: In their first game, they shut out Rosario of Northern Ireland 2-0. It would turn out to be Rosario’s only loss of the tournament. They spanked Fuglebjerg of Denmark 6-1, in a game midfielder Eric Campagna cited as his favorite game.Then they edged Sweden’s Farsta 3-2, the only match in the two weeks where they surrendered more than one goal. Novick noted, “One of the good things about Rick is that he doesn’t believe in piling it on. When his team gets a solid lead, he urges the kids to experiment by playing different positions.” Marin led 3-0 when Fullerton set the players free to try new things.
They followed that win with a 3-1 victory over Denmark’s Skovlunde and a 4-0 win over Italy’s Vic Formello. Luke Novick said the Formello match was his favorite. “We knew if we won this game, we’d get to play for the championship. It was a big game for us.” They closed out group play by battling to a scoreless tie with Italy’s Calcio Napoli.
Marin met Sweden’s Bele Barkarby in the final. Already short one player because of an injury to Bryce Ferguson, the team suffered another setback when Campagna was injured. “We probably didn’t play our best game,” Fullerton noted, “but they were a strong team.”
The team moved on to Spain, where they lost their opening round match, 1-0, to the French team Fresnes Sur Escaut. But they then went on a run through group play that matched their effort in Italy. They took out Sweden’s Kallereds FK and France’s US Lusitanos by identical 3-0 scores. There followed a scoreless tie with
That set up a match with the group leader, Lev Ham of Norway. The Norwegians carried a 1-0 lead at halftime, but Marin came roaring back. Teddy Mauze drilled the tying goal to start the comeback. “It was an incredible shot,” Fullerton said. “He drove the ball into the upper corner of the net from 25 yards out.” Marin went on to score two more goals to win 3-1. Mirroring the Italian tournament, where they handed Rosario its only loss, this match was the only one Lev Ham would lose. [This tournament marked the end of a long relationship between Mauze and Fullerton. See the accompanying story here.]
Ryan Louie thought this was the best game the team played and several players seconded that nomination. Fullerton agreed with those players who thought this was the best game. “We came from behind at halftime. The whole team played hard.”
Marin wrapped up group play by besting France’s Les Avirons 1-0 and clobbering Norway’s Storhamar 6-0. Marin and Lev Ham stood tied atop the group table and both teams advanced to the eight-team knockout round. Lev Ham was awarded the top spot based on goal differential.As the second-place team in its group, Marin took on French team, Pont Ste. Maxence, also a group runnerup. Marin advanced after a 2-1 victory to face Group B winner Frog Milano of Italy. Marin won 3-0, making Milano the third team to suffer its only loss at the hands of the Marin squad.
The final was a rematch between Marin and Lev Ham; and it was a doozy. The match was knotted at 1-1 at the end of time. The Norwegians won 3-2 on penalty kicks. Bryce Ferguson thought this was the best game of either tournament.
Dexter Eichorst felt Lev Ham was the best team Marin faced in either tournament. There was some minor consideration given to the Bele Barkarby team; but ultimately, everyone agreed the Norwegian team was best.
An indication of how well the Marin team played in Spain is that they gave up only four goals in their 10 games. That’s evidence of serious cohesion. An exceptional move by a brilliant forward can result in a goal on offense. But it takes every player concentrating to excel on defense. Mauze said one of the things about the Marin team that struck him was “how well we communicated.”
Fullerton said, “Our team as a whole was very strong and our success on defense reflected that strength. Everyone worked hard. Our forwards did a good job of keeping the ball at the opponents’ end, which took pressure off our defenders and keeper.
“Because of our nucleus, we were capable of playing a good style. We surprised the European teams and earned compliments from them.”Lucas Janetos had a unique perspective. He’d been living and playing in Britain until this year. He was curious about how well his Yank teammates would adjust to the rougher style of play of the Europeans.
Fullerton put that question in perspective. “They interpret the rules slightly differently. Because of that leniency, some things that would have been called [infractions] here were permitted. That results in a more physical style of play in Europe.”
It’s a given that every player contributed for the team to achieve such heights. Asked to capsulize each player’s contribution, Fullerton was full of praise.
About his forwards: “Teddy Mauze, target forward, was one of our top goal scorers. He made an incredible shot to tie the Norwegians in Spain. That goal keyed our come-from-behind win. Julian Melendez, along with Mauze, was one of our top goal scorers. Ryan Louie scored several game-winning goals. Forward was a new position for him and he adapted well. Dexter Eichorst scored a great goal for us in our 3-1 win over the Norwegians.”
About his midfielders: “Lucas Janetos possesses incredible speed; he is very dangerous on the flanks. Bryce Ferguson overcame injury. He missed the Italian tournament. We could have used him there. He gave us exceptional play in Spain as a defensive center midfielder. Luke Novick was a hard worker and was exceptional defensively in the midfield. Oliver Kiss gave us great presence and strength as a center midfielder and center back. Eric Campagna had some great games in Italy, but he was injured in the Italy Cup final and missed the games in Spain. Ian Slaughter missed most of the spring with a back injury, so this was one of his first tournaments. He bounced back from injury and did a real good job, particularly in his work rate and defending. Zack Augustin did a really good job performing his role.”
About his defenders: “Aiden Hersch was the only player who did not have a former teammate on the team. He did well as an aggressive right defender. Adrian Ferrier was real solid; he was a strong outside back. Daniel Wong excelled as a defender; he was one of our most consistent players. Chase Porter was a strong center back.”
About his goalkeeper: “Crit Champie conceded very few goals and made a number of critical saves for us.”
Some of the players had interesting perspectives. Mauze chose appearing in the two championship games as the highlight of the trip. He and Luke Novick both recounted how special it was to hear the national anthem played before each final. Ferguson felt the best thing was proving that the team was the equal of the European teams. Louie and Eichorst found the different styles of play fascinating.
Most of the players had traveled overseas previously. As veterans of foreign travel, they weren’t fazed by their
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