Gabe Rodriguez (L) takes on Connor Ebright (R) in the U14 Ultimate Soccer Player championship match
Youth Soccer News: Ultimate Soccer Players and Goalies Crowned in Paul Caligiuri and Thomas Dooley's H2O Overdrive Competition
The big surprise? More Defenders earned the recognition of Ultimate Soccer Player than Forwards. This was a unique event featuring 1v1 competition.
The H2O Overdrive Ultimate Soccer Player and Ultimate Soccer Goalie Tournament multi city series concluded with the Finals held at Irvine Valley College on Sunday, August 12, 2012.
After regional competitions around Southern California, beginning in San Diego and continuing through San Bernardino, Pasadena and Orange County, the best of the best gathered for one final day of 1v1 youth soccer matches.
The day began with matches in the large U14 bracket, both boys and girls, and continued through the rest of the age brackets until four semifinalists in each group had been indentified. Players then progressed on to the semifinal matches to determine the final pairings. After a break for a catered lunch for the players and soccer entertainment by the amazing LA Galaxy Futboleros, the live-webcast finals took place to determine the top players at each age.
The Ultimate Soccer Player and Ultimate Soccer Goalie competitions were the brainchild of former U.S. Men’s National Team member Paul Caligiuri, with help from fellow USMNT teammate Thomas Dooley and support from H2O Overdrive. Both Caligiuri and Dooley played on the U.S. Olympic team as well as two World Cups.
Randy Olshen, co-founder of Innovative Health Solutions LLC, the developers of H2O Overdrive - a healthy sports drink - was on hand for the finals and talked about the competition’s beginnings and future.
“This all started with Paul Caligiuri,” Olshen explained. “Paul is one of the first athlete ambassadors we signed in the soccer arena. We brought him on as an athlete ambassador, a well respected veteran professional athlete. I’ve known Paul since we were both young, so it was an easy decision to make to bring him on.”
|The LA Galaxy Futboleros show off their moves during a break before the finals
H2O Overdrive has worked with several other sporting events, including surfing and paddle boating, to create cutting-edge competitions. Soccer has just become the latest sport.
“As we looked at the sport of soccer, particularly at the youth level,” Olshen continued, “Paul brought to our attention that nobody had ever put on a 1v1 player event. People had produced goalie wars, but no one had done it for field players, and we thought it was a great way to showcase these athletes.”
Once Caligiuri and Dooley had the event idea worked out, they presented it to Olshen’s company. It was an instant hit.
“It wasn’t too hard for Paul to convince our organization to put on this program,” Olshen said. “We were very excited to be involved with it. It is our first pilot doing this and we have seen a great deal of interest from organizations throughout Southern California.”
And when H2O puts on an event, they go all the way and produce a highly professional, no expense spared event. With oversized tents for shade, been bags for players and siblings to sit on, xBox with FIFA, a huge outdoor TV screen and iced bins of complimentary H2O, players, parents and coaches all raved about the event.
The event has generated so much interest that, while the turnout for the first year could have been larger, the future looks very bright. “We are already being invited to go up to Seattle and out to New York and Massachusetts,” said Olshen, “so next year we hope to put on a six-city stop and then bring the finals back out to Southern California. We believe this is the most conducive environment, and as you can imagine for the families in these other cities, what better place to come out for a little vacation than Southern California?”
“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids,” said Lori Stratford, whose son Shane Modlin plays for Poway Vaqueros and was competing at the U15 level. “I would like to see more kids come out and participate. It’s a fantastic opportunity to show off your skills and have top level pros watch. It is great to be a part of something with so much passion.”
|Paul Caligiuri congratulates U14 Boys winner Defender Gabe Rodriguez
|Paul Caligiuri chats with U14 finalist Defender Connor Ebrigh
“Besides Caligiuri and Dooley, recently retired professional soccer player Clint Mathis was on hand meeting players - Mathis who started and ended his pro career with the LA Galaxy now runs their MLS high-level development camp programs.
“I think this is a great experience for the boys to meet pros as well as other boys and demonstrate their skills,” said Sergio Esparza, whose U14 son Alex Esparza plays with Temecula Valley Hawks. “I think it’s going to make him a better player.”
Enhancing player development was an important key component of the event. Dooley hoped that all those who competed would have learned something from the competition. "I saw a young talented player watching a few 1v1 matches and he walked off trying some of the techniques he saw," said Dooley, "That is inspiring. That is what we want."
Caligiuri pointed out that no one had ever put together a one-on-one competition for field players before, which made this a ground-breaking event.
Every coach I’ve talked to, at the highest levels – coaching World Cup teams to national teams to club youth soccer throughout the world and here in Southern California – have all discussed the importance of one-versus-one play,” Caligiuri explained.
1v1 is the essence of all soccer challenges on the field.
“In soccer, you have to defend in one-versus-one situations and you have to attack in one-versus-one situations. We felt this would be a way to enhance that development and allow the kids to play through the natural abilities of the game itself," said Caligiuri.
Dooley echoed the importance of players developing their one-on-one skills in a more competitive environment. “You do this in training too,” he said, “but in a training exercise you go after the defender and if you lose the ball, who cares because you get another chance and it becomes your teammates problem. Here it’s a game with just you and your opponent with only three exhausting minutes. You have to find the time when you want to go on the attack, and when you do you have to do it correctly because if you lose the ball the opponent can score.”
For anyone who has never attempted to go three minutes straight in a 1v1 competition, that may not seem like a long time. But watching these talented young athletes go all out for 180 seconds, you realize that it is as much about strategy as it is about endurance.
After 3 minutes, all the players were exhausted.
As Caligiuri pointed out, even at the highest level of international soccer the best players rarely have more than three minutes total time on the ball during a 90-minute game. Move that down to a youth level, where some levels play less than 90 minutes, and you can see the intensity of a three-minute one-on-one match. And it three minutes with just you, the ball and your opponent. No rest.
Three minutes is also an endurance threshold, based on oxygen exchange and cardio levels, and players have to understand how to apportion their energy. “The speed of play changes,” Caligiuri pointed out, “so three minutes is really the threshold someone can last out there without really dragging their feet.”
One young player who showed that he knew how to manage both his skills and his energy level was Gabe Rodriguez, a fourteen-year-old who plays left back on the Crusaders Soccer Club (CSC) U17 Premier team. Knowing his own strengths and being able to quickly read his opponent helped him to move from the San Diego Regional to the final match at the U14 level.
|Paul Caligiuri congratulates Megumi Barber on her Girls U14 title
“Throughout these games I used the same strategy. It’s a short field and I find myself to be pretty quick,” Gabe said after winning the semifinal match against another boy from San Diego. “I allow my opponent to come as close as possible to the center of the field, without it being too unsafe and then use my defensive skills. I usually win the ball back and I allow my speed to take me the rest of the way down the field. That’s been the game plan since San Diego and it’s been working for me.”
In the U14 championship match he found himself up against Connor Ebright, a right back for a U16 Strikers FC team coached by Caligiuri. Ebright is a strong, determined and fast defensive player with a clear passion for scoring goals and a great shot.
In this battle of defenders to become the first Ultimate Soccer Player, it was the combination of Rodriguez’s ball handling skills and speed that made the difference in a closely contested match. Afterwards Gabe talked about winning the first Ultimate Soccer Player title.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” he said about the victory. “To be able to come out here and play against these kids at such a high level was a great opportunity. For me to come out on top feels really good. I think I’ve been playing a solid one-on-one defense throughout this whole tournament, even back in first regional competition in San Diego.”
Two other San Diego products took away top honors on the field: Megumi (Meg) Barber of San Diego Soccer Club and Ignacio Robles of Fallbrook’s Villa SC.
“The competition was great,” said Meg, who won the girls’ U14 title. “It’s very good for player development because it’s one-on-one and it isolates your skills and your speed. It takes a lot of your mental strength as well because it’s three minutes and you have to figure out how much you’re going to put into the first minute, second minute, third minute. It’s just a very good experience to play and I recommend it for all soccer players.”
Meg, who plays under coach Raffi Ruotolo, also credited much of her success to playing futsal at both Sean Bowers' 619 Futsal and Mario Mrakovic's San Diego Futsal. “Futsal helps a lot with my skills a lot and with quick play and knowing what to do before you get the ball,” she explained.”
Ignacio had little to say after his win, but Robert Lopez, VP of Competitive Teams at Villa FC, was very enthusiastic about his U16 champion. “He’s a great player, a very disciplined player,” Lopez said. “He keeps his head in the game all the time. He didn’t panic when he saw his opponent dancing around the ball; he stayed composed.”
|U.S. Men's National Team veterans and creators of the Ultimate Soccer Player and Ultimate Soccer Goalie Tournament Paul Caligiuri and Thomas Dooley are joined by champions and finalists during the live webcast of the finals
One important element of the H2O Overdrive Ultimate Soccer Player and Ultimate Soccer Goalie Tournament that did not get as much attention as it should have was the charity element. While players paid a small entry fee to take part, those proceeds – and additional money from H2O Overdrive and sponsors LA Galaxy – will be donated to the Orange County chapter of the American Diabetes Association for their work with juvenile diabetes.
“It’s about giving back to the community,” said Olshen, “and that’s what we focus on.”
Overall the day, and the entire tournament, was a great success. Parents, players and coaches were all enthusiastic about the competition and the benefits, as were the organizers and sponsors. The players were all treated like professionals. Each player in the final received complimentary T shirts, ball bags, soccer balls, towels, water bottles, and the LA Galaxy provided complimentary tickets for an upcoming match.
“I’m glad to be part of it,” said Caligiuri of the event. “I’m glad that H2O Overdrive has put the resources into it because it wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
“I’d like to thank H2O Overdrive and everyone who has been involved in this whole tournament for getting it set up,” said U14 winner Rodriguez. “It’s a great experience, a great opportunity and a great way to show yourself off to coaches. I would recommend coming out.”