In 2019, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) announced that they would be removing the U-12 boys age group, leaving San Jose Earthquakes U-12 coach Mark Christie in an interesting position. The Quakes Academy ultimately decided that they would continue to develop these age groups, even if that meant finding competition elsewhere. We had an opportunity to chat with Mark about how he has continued to develop the Quakes’ youngest prospects.
SJEarthquakes.com: The USSDA made the decision to remove the U-12 age group from the league. How has the change affected your teams?
Mark Christie: “Well last year in the U-12 USSDA bracket, we had two age groups that trained together; U-11 and U-12. Some clubs split their U-11s and U-12s into separate teams and some clubs only had players who were age-eligible for the U-12s. For the last 12 months, our U-11s would regularly play against U-12 teams so it was good for them in a lot of ways. The key disadvantage for the USSDA U-12 age group was that there was no league table. It was less competitive in that sense because they had previously been in a very competitive environment.
When we moved to the NorCal Premier Soccer league (NPL), it was a really competitive environment again because there’s a league table, State Cup and other tournaments. Now our U-11s and U-12s can play kids who are their own age. Because there’s a league table, our kids play with an edge in training and in games and are even more motivated.
Last year, we were placed in NPL South which is a very strong region. We had arguably the strongest region in terms of competition and both of our teams ended up getting promoted to the NPL Champions League which is home to the top 11 teams in NorCal. It was a major achievement for us especially because most of our U-12 B team had players who were age-eligible for the U-11s.”
SJEQ: Considering everything you’ve accomplished with this group in 2019, what are you most proud of?
MC: “We have very talented players who had to face various different challenges. I was impressed by their maturity this season. They were really open-minded to learning. I’m constantly trying to improve them in all different pillars. Most teams are just going out to win when they play us, and some are trying to win and develop their players. What I’m trying to get them to do is play at a high level in a specific style.
When our players are not with me, I’m constantly giving them other challenges to overcome like what sort of food they are eating, how they’re preparing for games and things like that. What I loved about this group is that they were able to maintain such a high level of performance throughout the whole season when I know they’re getting much more information than a typical club. And at such a young age, they were able to take all that information in, still play with a smile on their face and be passionate about the sport.”
SJEQ: Considering the boys are so young, how do you get them to work so well in a professional environment?
MC: “In the first six to eight weeks of training, I’m really focused on our culture and that’s the culture of excellence. It’s how we should behave in every single situation. Whether it’s how to prepare to take the field, how they set up their bags, how they approach the coach, how they treat their teammates and what they do when they’re home. I get them to work so well because the culture gets implemented early and I make sure they have fun while doing it. These kids coming in who are nine, 10, 11, they’re all open books. If you create the right environment, they’ll rise to whatever standard you set for them. They’re actually a lot more mature than they get credit for.”
SJEQ: How important is it to evaluate younger talent and have them play with older kids in order to learn and develop?
MC: “I think sometimes we assume that playing up will always make you better, where it really needs to be a balance. The kids need to have a balance between playing up, playing at your own age group and actually playing in easier games. Parents assume that if their kid constantly plays up, they’ll be good players. In some cases, playing only older players can teach you to compete before you’ve mastered the tools needed to play the game.
If you look at our U-11s, they’ve played up for a little bit, they’ve learned how to compete and how to play quicker. They’ve learned how to lose; they’ve learned how to develop but now they need to learn the tools to be better individuals in order to play the game well. It’s all about balance about when to play them up and when to play players in their own age group. In this upcoming Spring season, we’re going to have the U-11s play against U-12s and against players their own age which will be the perfect balance between gaining confidence and giving them a challenge.”
SJEQ: Given that you demand so much from the boys, how do the parents react to their kids being in such a professional environment?
MC: “I’ll actually share a message I got from a parent today. Here it is:
‘Thanks so much for your dedicated planning and concern... [My son] is very lucky to have you. He’s never had such an amazing coach before. You provide him a vision to play soccer and make him have a dream for the future.’
I think the parents are really appreciative of the environment that their kids are in because they’re inspired by soccer. They dream big. When the parents see their kids change their behavior on and off the pitch, they get really excited. They see them prepare for games differently, they watch games at home and study more too. I get that a lot from parents; about how they act, how they behave, how their kids are always positive and asking the right questions. I think that’s powerful especially when they’re in an environment that also helps them in school. For the parents, I think it’s a train that they’re happy to jump on.”
SJEQ: How do you make sure there is a balance for the kids with regards to playing at the Quakes?
MC: “I know practicing four days a week on top of weekend games can be a lot, so every few weeks I’ll check in with the parents to see if they need a day off so we have a relationship where everyone can be fully bought in. There’s always that balance you need you keep because at the end of the day, they’re still kids.
When kids live far away, we’re actually really flexible at this age. If they live far away, they’ll practice twice a week and we set up local options so they can still be a part of this environment. For example, we have a really talented kid from Piedmont, and because we were flexible, he’s developed into a really good football player who’s now playing against MLS teams.”