Tom Keegan: A soccer lifer offers theory as to how USA can become player on world stage

photo by: Associated Press

Maldives soccer coach Istvan Urbanyi of Hungary shouts out instructions to his players during a match against Nepal at the South Asian Football Federation or SAFF Championship, in New Delhi, India, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

The question hangs on the minds of every mainstream sports fan who gets into the World Cup every four years and then doesn’t follow the sport very closely until the next World Cup.

It goes something like this: How is it that a nation of 325 million people misses qualifying for the World Cup?

I put it to Kaw Valley FC technical director and head coach Istvan Urbanyi, a native of Hungary.

“Hey, it’s a tough question,” Urbanyi said. “As a Hungarian, we never qualified for the World Cup since 1986.”

Urbanyi enjoys challenges, otherwise he wouldn’t have been interested in coaching a roster with so much youth compared to some other clubs in the Heartland Division of the Premier Development League.

Was he really going to pass on the question? He quickly killed that fear.

“Of course, Hungary is a small country,” he said, then went about tackling the issue.

“Here, it goes back to traditions,” Urbanyi started. “U.S. is a sports country, but soccer is a very special game. I’m still not sure if you can learn how to play soccer only if you play academies or if you only are part of organized soccer. There is something what I call street smarts. You have to learn how to play, like play the game; pickup games.”

Urbanyi conducts excellent interviews because he always makes the person listening picture something for the first time. In this case, I pictured a few young children on a field using a side wall of a school for a goal and playing a pickup game of soccer. And I realized it was a scene I have not seen in decades.

“What happens now is, two things happen: You try as parents and clubs to have kids try soccer as early as possible,” he said. “It’s an industry. To have more kids in the system creates more money for coaches, and companies.”

Money begets creative minds to think of ways to make more money.

“If you want to sell something better, you have to have more players,” he said. “You go younger, younger, younger, now age 4 they start organized soccer for those kids. At the end, something is missing.”

He tried to put into a word what is missing and found one upon which he settled.

“The smell, maybe,” he said.

He explained.

“When you have your friends and there are three of you, ‘OK, what are we going to play: two on one? OK, the garage door is the goal.’ That part is missing,” he said.

The creative part of the athlete’s brain is engaged in countries in which pickup soccer is common. In competition, the creative play that worked once in an unorganized competition resurfaces without the athlete even thinking about it. Reflexes always beat thoughts in sports because they are quicker.

Urbanyi arrived at the second part of the equation that he referenced earlier.

“The other thing is they start pretty early today (in organized leagues),” he said. “They start at the age of 4, 5, 6. Now, it takes you 15 years to get (to the) pro level. Fifteen years is a lifetime.”

Urbanyi said he was asked by a parent how to steer a 6-year-old into the game.

His response: “You know what: I don’t know. I cannot tell you. Those kids are not going to have any free weekend for 15 years. They will be at showcases. They will be at summer camps. They will be at something organized. I’m not saying that’s all wrong, but that’s part of the challenge that we have to deal with compared to the old days.”

The old days of kids figuring out the games without being herded into the SUV for another practice or game. The old days when burnout wasn’t as common.

“The other thing is, everybody is fighting for the athletes, not only at the professional level, but also the young ones,” Urbanyi said. “That’s what other sports are doing: ‘We need players and we don’t want them to play other sports.’ That’s not how we did it. I played basketball. I played handball. I was part of the track and field competition.”

Ultimately, Urbanyi played soccer professionally and never lost his burning love for the game.

“The kids today are skillful in soccer,” he said. “I would say most of them are magicians compared to me. They can do everything with the ball because of the skills sessions, the individual skills. I can make hundred bucks to teach someone how to juggle the ball, how to do the kind of freestyle movement. It’s good money, right?”


“Now, that’s the way to produce good soccer players? I’m not sure about that, because I believe that soccer is a mental game, so you have to learn how to play,” Urbanyi said. “Being skillful is just one thing. Soccer technique, to me, is to find out how to beat you with my teammates: ‘How are we going to beat that guy? OK, what’s the best way? If we have three (on) three, how are we going to beat those guys?’ ”

By going back to the things you did to beat your buddies, scoring the winning goal booting the ball through the two shrubs.


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