A Lazio player brings up the ball in a Downtown Soccer League game.
Soccer coaches stack teams, some argue
By Billy Weisbrod
Aside from the looming presence of the World Trade Center disaster site, the scene at Battery Park City fields on Saturday could have been interchanged with any park or field across the United States. The Downtown Soccer League was in the midst of a successful season, bringing to Lower Manhattan the weekend tradition honored by families nationwide. Parents and young soccer players lined the sidelines of two adjacent fields while teams of 8-year-olds battled it out on the pitch.
In a match-up of teams from the Minor 8 division on the north field, Lazio was running a clinic on AC Milan. Operating like a well-oiled machine, Lazios defenders barely allowed the ball onto their end of the field. And one forward for Lazio continually peppered the AC Milan net with shots. While this may have been fun for Lazio, AC Milans players looked understandably dejected after the match.
While the league does not keep statistics or standings, everyone on hand was getting into the competitive spirit of the moment. As is the case in any organized sport, things are going to get competitive, regardless of the leagues mission statement. And while a far cry from the highly publicized stories of soccer parents who get into physical altercations with referees, the Lower Manhattanites on hand understandably wanting to see their kids do well. Who wouldnt? Even if there are no records kept, losing over and over again gets tiresome and frustrating for any athlete, especially the 8-year-old player. And some involved with the D.S.L. do not believe enough is being done to ensure that certain teams do not become doormats of the league.
Christina DeGuardi, coach of Juventus in the Minor 8 division, said that she did see a problem with competitive imbalance in the league, through her players pre-game pessimism. Before the game even started my kids were all saying that we were going to get killed, that we could never win and that this team was the best in the league, she said.
DeGuardi soon realized why her players had this attitude. I thought they were reacting to the fact that this team had the best player, which makes sense that they would be intimidated. However, when the game started, it was clear that this team had many of the best players. These kids are apparently all friends, have been in the same class together since kindergarten and have been playing soccer together for several years.
DeGuardi and others did not want to identify particular teams or coaches they felt were stacking players.
Another person involved with the league expressed severe disappointment with the competitive imbalance in the league and the effect it has on his players psyche. When asked about balance in the league, the person said there is none.... The same teams come back year after year.... There are kids crying after every game.
Some parents wonder if it is appropriate to let a dynasty manifest itself year after year. In a league that seems to pride itself on not being overly intense, certain teams apparently get used to winning every game while others inevitably are forced to accept losing as routine.
League president Don Schuck expressed faith in the leagues team selection process and the state of competitive balance, saying We believe that the process works fairly well. Schuck defended the practice of letting teammates stay together year after year. He emphasized the fact that the D.S.L. enables players who have grown up in the neighborhood to spend time together in a structured environment, considering the fact that they go to different schools all over the city as well as different summer programs out of town.
Schuck said each coach can request to keep up to six players from the previous year, five plus the coachs child. But he said there is an effort to spread the wealth of talent. If the requests are all budding stars we try to mix them up a bit. A selection committee then divides the rest of the players to try and create balance, Schuck said.
The Minor 8 division had four coaches on its selection committee this season. Schuck admitted that the selection process is an inexact science, noting that players skill levels can change drastically during the off-season. It is hard
Half of them have gone away to soccer camp, or grown six inches.
William Bialosky, coach of Lazio, also expressed faith in the player distribution process. The topic of parity within our league has been an important issue for us this year, he wrote in an e-mail to Downtown Express. We began the team selection process by having each coach reserve six players for their team and then to honor the players preferences for a particular coach or team. In the vast majority of cases the players chose to be with the team that they had played with in the previous season
.We left the draft that summer night believing that we had achieved a good degree of parity among the teams.
Coach Dominique Wissman of Hibernian in the Minor 9 division describes a way in which certain teams are able to take advantage of this process, even in a league in which records are not kept. One kid in my team came over from another team because she was benched all season. A despicable action, although that team was a winner last year. Another very talented kid from my team was approached numerous times by that same coach with the lure that he should play with a strong team that can really appreciate that skill little to say that this kid came back to me with the attitude that team spirit is more important than winning.
Mark Costello, vice president of the Downtown Little League is familiar with this dilemma in organized youth sports. Ive been closely involved in rostering baseball teams since 2004, so Ive been one of the people trying to wrestle with this [competitive balance] issue, Costello said. He agreed with Schuck on the importance of keeping friends together. Everyone loves continuity not scrambling the kids year in, year out. Friends want to stay together, teammates who perhaps only have friendships through a particular team dont want to lose that.
The baseball league seeks to find a compromise, Costello said. In younger groups we try to use a variety of hybrid systems. For 9-10s for example, we let coaches draft half their teams and use a committee to fill out the teams, trying to mandate balance. For the youngest children, we tend to favor social rostering i.e., we let parents and kids pick each other and worry less about balance. In T-ball, scores arent kept so at that level we havent had problems.
Universal rules of Little League favor balance, according to Costello. A big difference between Little League and soccer is that our league is affiliated with the International Little League in Williamsport, Penn. There are a lot of Williamsport-mandated rules about rostering that mandate player drafts after age 11 or so. The good news is that all-draft teams tend to be more balanced.
Coach DeGuardi expressed concern with her unfamiliarity of the process. Are my kids suffering because I am a newcomer/non-parent who didnt know the politics of the league, she asked. Should I have done research as to who the best players are and have tried to recruit them? I am guessing that this wasnt what the league intended.
The Scarsdale Youth Soccer League, for example, holds pre-season tryouts in order to even out the distribution of talent in the league.
Schuck sees problems with instituting a similar policy for the D.S.L. In addition to separating lifelong friends he does not believe tryouts would logically fit into the league schedule. Teams are selected in the summer, The great majority of kids are away at camp or involved in other activities or family vacations. Our season begins right after Labor Day.
Remember that D.S.L. is an all-volunteer league which tries to promote soccer skills, sportsmanship and fun for all of the kids in Lower Manhattan, Schuck added. We do the best we can.