Sowing the seeds at ESP
WINDSOR, Conn. -- Jurgen Klinsmann's face lit up at the question.
His message for the week?
Certainly he could go many ways with his answer. It's not every day that you have the top 150 high-school aged players in the country together for six full days of training, matches and instruction. This sort of thing doesn't happen in England. Or in Italy. And certainly not in Klinsmann's native land of Germany.
Yet, it does happen here in the U.S. each July when the best players from all over the nation convene at the adidas Elite Soccer Program (ESP), which was held from July 6-11 at the Loomis Chaffee School.
That's why, as Klinsmann surveyed the opening day matches being played on two of the several flawless fields that surround the pristine campus of Loomis, the same excitement that he showed while scoring goals in the World Cup for Germany was seen as he explained his duties as the program's technical director.
"I'm encouraging the players every chance I get to be proactive, not reactive," says one of the few former players who have won Player of the year honors in both Germany and England. "It's their turn to make something out of their talent. In soccer, the game is the teacher, not the coach. The players who are here have done a good job of that or they wouldn't have made it to this level. But to make it to the next level -- college for some, professional for others, and the National Team for many -- they have to grasp this opportunity.
"We can hold the door open for them, but they are the ones who have to walk through."
To do that, ESP is not about gathering the elite players to reward them with an all-expense paid vacation to come and knock the ball around and get patted on the back every moment of the day. Instead, the program strives to achieve a balance between functional training sessions, staging competitive matches and exposing its athletes to guest coaches from around the world and personal development specialists.
This year, each of the players received instruction on the program's first day from the likes of former U.S. National Team captain and current D.C. United youth development director John Harkes, Charlie Cooke from Coerver Coaching, Paolo Gatti from AC Milan and Sebastian Dremmler from Bayern Munich, which is one of Klinsmann's former clubs.
Once split into 10 even teams, they were able to get five straight days of training, off-the-field tactical sessions, and match play coaching from an impressive roster of former professionals including the likes of Paul Caligiuri, Eric Eichmann, Jimmy Banks, Desmond Armstrong and Perry Van Der Beck.
"We're trying to hit on all aspects, and give the kids exposure to how things work at the professional and National Team level, as well as in real soccer countries," said Klinsmann, speaking of Germany and Italy. "We also have two sports psychologists (Dr. Dan Freigang and Dr. Damon Burton) to bring the mental side into things, and how to solve problems on the field, in their careers and in life.
"Really, it's a life school."
Whatever it is, it's working. In eight short years, ESP as become one of the most recognized development camps in the world, serving over 2000 athletes including well-known players such as DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Martino, Alecko Eskandarian, Edson Buddle and Jonathan Spector.
"It's unequaled by anything else," said Chris McGuire, Soccer Sports Marketing Manager for adidas. "This experience is something unique for young American players."
"This opportunity doesn't exist anywhere else in the world," said Caligiuri, who was recently voted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame after playing for the U.S. National Team 110 times including in the 1990 and 1994 World Cup. "I'd love to be fifteen or sixteen again. The kids we see here are so much more in tune with the game than we were. They have more role models. I couldn't watch a National Team player on television to emulate, and I didn't have MLS on my doorstep the way kids today do. That's one of the reasons the level of soccer intelligence is so high at a camp like this.
"Having a program like ESP gives our top-notch players something to look at once they hit high school to say, Hey, that's where I want to be next summer."
The players who made the trek to the Constitution State this summer definitely displayed that sort of passion. However, much like Klinsmann said, getting to ESP is just the first step. It's what you do once you're at ESP. When you're standing on the field staring across at the player you'll be marking who you've only read about on the U-17 National Team, and are about to show your stuff in front of nearly every Division I college coaching staff in the country, it's not always easy.
In years past, there were players at ESP who were not in the same stratosphere as the top 10 or 11 starlets. It was easy to differentiate the players from the posers.
But this year? Forget it. The difference between the top 10 and the bottom 10 was marginal. As one college coach put it: "No one is really dominating out there, and no one is really lost out there."
If there were trends in this year's class, it was in the size of the players. As the level has been raised in the U.S., the smaller, skillful players have risen to the top. There were a slew of 5-foot-7, 5-8 midfielders whose technical abilities shone over the others.
In addition, the attacking players dominated the play -- and the ink in the folders of the college coaches -- where in recent years, strong defenders such as Spector and U-20 National Team centerback Patrick Phelan have stood out.
"The offensive players are way ahead of the backs this year," said another college coach. "There aren't nearly as many future star backs as there are midfielders and strikers."
While opinions varied greatly as to who was the best player of the bunch, there was somewhat of a consensus as to who the true standouts were throughout the week.
From surveying over 30 coaches to go with ESPN Soccernet.com's own analysis after watching four straight days of matches, here is a listing of the top 15 players at the 2004 adidas ESP:
Michael Grella -- The book on him coming into camp was that he is "good when he is on, and average when he is not." Well, he was certainly on this past week, scoring several goals, including a well-placed shot into the top left corner in the first half of the All-Star Game on Saturday night. Though only listed at 5-11, 155 pounds, the U-18 National Team and Albertson striker showed his ability to hold off any defender, and use his power off the dribble when going to goal. His fiery personality helped raise the level of his teammates all week, as well. The University of Maryland is said to be a front-runner for his services.
Johann Smith -- The fastest player at camp. Bar none. From the first game on, the Oakwood Soccer Club striker displayed his explosive speed and ability to get behind the defense, as well as finish, which he did in the All-Star Game, as well as in several matches. Having played only at the Regional level, Smith firmly put himself on the map this week. No matter what coach you talked to, his name came up right away after the first day. The University of Virginia is one of several schools on his trail.
Stephen Bickford -- Was the Golden Ball winner for the week as the Most Valuable Player. "He's good for a goal a game," said one coach, after watching the CASL Elite striker score two goals in his team's third match of the week. When paired with Eric Avila, who also had a strong week, he was at his best, running on to several through balls with his blazing speed to sneak in on goal. Having never been involved as a national or regional level player before, Bickford certainly proved his worth at ESP, and will be one of the most highly-recruited forwards out of the Class of 2005.
Matt Mitchell -- What a story. This Tariffville, Conn., resident went from not being selected for ESP, to being added at the last minute as a replacement player, to scoring the tying and winning goals in the All-Star Game after lighting up the nets all week. The Boston Bolts standout played up top during the week, but can also play as a wide midfielder. Speed, one-on-one play, and his fearlessness in attacking the goal were impressive all week.
Garry Lewis -- A ferocious center midfielder who wins nearly every ball in his vicinity. That wasn't all he brought to the table, though, as the two-time NSCAA All-American distributed well out of the midfield and was strong in his off-the-ball movement. You couldn't miss him, either, with his blond Mohawk. Though the Jacksonville Kicks standout was mentioned by most every coach in attendance, his recruiting drama was over before it started, having committed to the University of North Carolina during the spring.
Michael Farfan -- Along with his twin brother, Gabe, the U-17 National Team midfielder was a terror along the right flank all week, displaying strong one-on-one skills and excellent technical skills.
Jamie Franks -- Some coaches in attendance had him in their top three for the week after watching him dominate on both the right and left flanks. The PDA midfielder has been a regular on the Region I team for several years and was no stranger to the coaches on hand, but his stock rose tremendously by showing better than others who are in Residency down in Bradenton, Fla. In addition to his strong vision and ability to get out of trouble in tight spaces, he showed some bite defensively, as well.
Ryan Soroka -- His play was up and down this week, but when he is playing well, there is no one midfielder better in the age group. The U-17 National Team and FC Delco standout has pace to give defenders fits when he gets loose on the right side, as well as superb decision-making skills and an accurate shot. Soroka is also very active away from the ball and a menace once he loses the ball.
Michael Konicoff -- Served in the nicest balls of anyone at camp. Has a stocky build at 5-7, 150 pounds, but is quick with the ball, and is strong in one-on-one situations on the attack. The NSCAA All-American is a true left-sided midfielder, which had several coaches enamored with him.
Lee Nguyen -- No player in camp had the one-on-one abilities that Nguyen has. He was the guy who the rest of his peers kept talking about because of his wide-array of moves and quickness on the ball. The Dallas Texans standout can play as an attacking midfielder or out wide.
Christopher Schuler -- The biggest field player in camp at 6-foot-4, 175 pounds, this strong centerback won every ball in the air over the week, and showed the ability to serve good balls out of the back. While a few coaches wondered aloud whether his best position is in the back, the Chicago Magic standout did a good job organizing the defense and keeping the team's shape throughout the week.
Graham Dugoni -- Was the only centerback to man a three-man backline all week. He was able to do so because of his ability to win balls in the air with ease, as well as with solid tackles. Several times, the Region IV select player from Portland, Oregon, held off strikers with his size and strength (6-2, 185), whether they had the ball, or by shepherding the ball to his goalkeeper.
Taylor Waspi -- The U-17 National Team defender showed a lot of versatility playing as a centerback at times, and as a right back on other occasions. No matter the situation, the two-time ESP All-Star was composed and one of the best players on the field. His strength in the air makes him appear larger than his 5-11, 180-pound frame. Going into his junior year, Waspi will be one of the most highly-recruited players next summer.
Mark Wiltse -- Another player in Residency under the guidance of John Ellinger, Wiltse displayed a savvy for the game out of the back that was noticeable. Some coaches like him as a centerback, while others think he's more of a midfielder, due to his skill set and size (5-11, 150 pounds).
Chay Cain -- The Chicago Magic goalkeeper was the pick of the litter in a class that several coaches dubbed "less than stellar." The two-time All-American isn't an intimidating presence at 5-11, 165 pounds, but he has all the necessary tools, including strong shot-stopping ability and positioning. Having a 4.03 on a 4.0 scale will only help his cause during the recruiting season that officially kicked off on July 1.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.