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At least one local soccer club is focusing less on winning and more on individual player training, which is exactly what the U.S. Soccer Federation wants.

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When it comes to big-time Louisiana sports, soccer barely registers on the radar screen of general fanfare outside of the grass fields of youth club competition. Statewide, high schools field enough teams to fill only three divisions as opposed to the traditional five. The major universities, if they have soccer teams at all, offer mostly still-developing women's programs. On the semi-professional level, amateur teams in Baton Rouge and New Orleans play in the unofficial fourth tier of men's professional soccer.

Mostly, club soccer kids and their supporting cast of parents, siblings and part-time coaches comprise Louisiana's serious soccer contingent. On any given weekend, they travel long distances throughout the South. They watch alternative sports channels such as Fox Soccer Channel and GolTv religiously for English and Spanish League highlights. And they play the most popular sport in the world week in and week out with hardly anyone but rival clubs and their fans taking notice.

For the longest time, club soccer has been exactly what its name implies " a group of people who get together a few times a week to participate in a sport for which they share an abiding love. That image is changing, however. As Major League Soccer (MLS) and college programs increase their demands for homegrown talent and traditional high school sports programs struggle to meet that demand, the club system has become the primary pipeline for local soccer talent to move up to the next level.

One local club that epitomizes this trend is the New Orleans Soccer Academy. Since it was founded in 1994, its mission has been to cultivate each player's finer points, a goal that often gets short shrift in the winner-take-all mentality of American sports. While not always producing the best overall club record, this approach has allowed NOSA to produce skilled players who can move up to the increasingly competitive next levels of the sport. Coincidentally, the United States Soccer Federation, which oversees the U.S. National Team as well as MLS, now preaches the same approach to youth soccer programs around the country.

"We want to really live up to the name 'academy,'" says NOSA's director of coaching, Santo Rivas, "because academy has a more academic context to it. A club can have a very casual, recreational context, but when you talk about academy, you talk about specialized training, and a specialized system of development."

Having recently wrapped up its season with an "Under-18" boys state cup championship, the club's outlook is evident in both players and parents. "Some teams go out looking for blood," says U-18 goalie Robert "Butch" Reeves, who blocked three penalty kicks in a shootout to help win the state title for his team. "But we go out there and try to play football to the best of our ability."

Pam Martin, mother of center-halfback David Martin, who has played for NOSA for 10 years, agrees. "NOSA brings a sense of dignity to the game," she says.

While this high-minded attitude has sometimes given other clubs an easy chance to beat NOSA in area competition, the club's overall record speaks for itself. NOSA teams have won 44 state cup championships since the club's inception. What makes the club even prouder is the fact that it has placed 90 players into Division I, II and III college soccer.

Since Katrina, however, NOSA has faced its share of difficulties. The club only recently regained access to its main practice fields, which became a FEMA trailer park after the storm. Post-storm membership plummeted to a third of its original size, which threatened the very existence of this year's U-18 club.

Enter Rivas, who played professional soccer in the old A-League before the MLS was established and also coached Division II college soccer. He has rallied the club since taking over as coaching director last summer. At his urging, the U-18 boys rededicated themselves to the club, which had taught many of them the game from an early age. Now eight of the team's members will play at the college level next year; another has an offer from a professional club in the Netherlands.

Looking ahead, Rivas and NOSA have set their sights on re-establishing the club around "the next big thing" in American soccer " the U.S. Soccer Federation's recently created nationwide youth league, the Development Academy. Some of the best youth soccer clubs in the country, along with newly developed Major League Soccer youth club affiliates, will participate in the Development Academy. The Development Academy is the soccer-governing body's attempt to consolidate and hone the nation's scattered soccer talent, currently spread across thousands of youth clubs throughout America. The idea is simple: Raise the bar for future talent to feed the U.S. National Team and the MLS. It is U.S. Soccer's most comprehensive foray into youth club soccer to date.

Rivas and NOSA are determined to join the new league, but they will have to wait at least a year. Their initial application was rejected in April. Although U.S. Soccer would not comment on the particulars of a team's bid, Rivas says he was told that geography was the biggest reason that NOSA came up short. Only one other club team between Florida and Texas plays in the league, and it's in Birmingham, Ala.

Member of the league or not, NOSA hopes to redefine itself going forward around the same goals as the Development Academy " fewer games, less emphasis on winning, and more focus on preparing their athletes to play at the college and professional levels.

'If you look back at the history of youth soccer, it wasn't a lot of training or, if so, it wasn't always real quality training," says Neil Buethe, a spokesman for U.S. Soccer. "They just played a larger number of games across the state or even across the country. The whole idea now is to get away from that and provide more superior training and [higher] quality games."

'Player Development," an often over-used phrase in club soccer, gained real credibility in the U.S. in 1999 with a residency program for the U.S. Men's U-17 National team in Bradenton, Fla. It was there that today's American soccer stars, including Landon Donovan, Demarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onwenyu, Bobby Convey, Eddie Johnson and others trained day in and day out while finishing high school.

Speaking of playing up to the next level, a group of the area's best under-15 boys soccer players spent last week competing in a prestigious international tournament in New Orleans' South African sister city, Durban, as part of a run-up to the 2010 World Cup, which will be played in Durban. The City of New Orleans received an invitation to send a team to the Durban tournament in anticipation of Mayor Ray Nagin's recent visit there, and City Hall turned to Rivas and the coaching directors of other local clubs to assemble a team. The New Orleans team includes boys from NOSA, Lakeview Soccer Club, Carrollton Soccer Association and Lafreniere Soccer Club.

Rivas had to decline a chance to travel with the team because of his duties as Olympic development coach for Louisiana. The other three coaching directors " Lakeview's Hubie Collins (who doubles as the head coach of Jesuit High School's perennially strong soccer team), Carrollton's Louie Smothermon and Lafreniere's Julio Paez " accompanied the team and coached them in Durban.

Playing on the future turf of the World Cup had to be a heady experience for the boys, but only 16 of them got to taste that experience. Before local clubs can introduce all of their players to the next level of competition and development, Rivas believes that all local clubs will have to apply to the Development Academy. "We're going to have to create our own little conference," he says. "It makes sense because we go to play these teams anyway."

Another consideration for NOSA and other local clubs is the parents. Many already are stretched thin, financially and otherwise, by long drives and a nearly yearlong season. "It's definitely a commitment," Pam Martin says of being a club soccer parent. "We've spent holidays at soccer tournaments and driven to more places," she laughs. "But you try to find something your kids are passionate about and then you try and provide it for them. For a lot of these boys, it's not only a passion, this also is their ticket to go to college."

NOSA Director of Coaching Santo Rivas talks to players about the game of soccer. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • NOSA Director of Coaching Santo Rivas talks to players about the game of soccer.

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