Sports

Clark is youth soccer's new superman

BIYSC director of coaching Grant Clark - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
BIYSC director of coaching Grant Clark
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

To the indifferent observer, it may seem little more than kids spending the afternoon kicking a ball around the high school fields.

A refined eye can distinguish at least four distinct teams in training, boys and girls, with stray players from other squads receiving individual coaching away from the broad, netted goals.

And to Grant Clark, it’s the fertile ground from which sprang the U.S. national soccer team’s success in the 2002 World Cup.

“It was home-grown American boys,” Clark says of a squad that shook up the world at soccer’s quadrennial showcase this past June, “(kids) who grew up playing in situations just like this.”

Doing his part to promote American soccer – specifically, its future – is both passion and job for Clark, hired recently as first-ever director of coaching for the Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer Club.

The position was created, BIYSC officials say, to bring the quality of coaching to a level commensurate with the talent running around on Bainbridge fields.

The youth league has ballooned to more than 1,100 participants, with 74 teams in all age groups ready for fall play.

And with 14 “select” teams – two of them, the boys U-15 Arsenal and girls U-15 Magic competing at the top levels of youth play – the club decided to invest more resources in the folks on the sidelines.

“Coaching makes a huge difference at (the select) level,” said Mark Lund, BIYSC president. “You can have great talent, but if you don’t have the coaching, it doesn’t matter.”

Enter Clark, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and a lifelong devotee of the sport.

Clark came to the U.S. at age 5 with his family, playing in youth leagues in the San Francisco Bay area. He won a national championship with a U-19 select team, then went on to play at UCLA.

He’s been coaching youth soccer ever since, and at age 41 works for a company that sends American teams to Europe for training and competition.

When he moved to the island last year, Clark signed up to coach both boys and girls recreational squads. And when the BIYSC board decided to add a director of coaching, Clark was a natural choice.

“We all felt it was needed, and I was glad to have the support,” he said.

Clark will go from team to team throughout the season, advising coaches on training and development. The league has also brought in Pro Excel, a professional soccer outfit that offers seminars and instructional materials for coaches, and skill-building camps for players.

Climbing ranks

While it may never ascend to the top of the American sports world, soccer is making strides.

The U.S. women’s national team is the best on the planet, a point indelibly made by Brandi Chastain’s dramatic penalty kick and subsequent jersey-peeling in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Even the often hapless men’s squad acquitted itself nicely at the 32-team World Cup this year. The Yanks surprised all by advancing to the tournament’s final eight before running into a bland but solid German squad.

In all, it was a welcome turn after the team’s dismal performance four years earlier.

“In ‘98, people were not happy with what happened in France,” Clark said. “And it’s good that they were upset. They were watching, and they were aware of (the World Cup), and they knew we could do better.”

The dramatic turnaround is generally attributed to better coaching, and the development of domestic talent through college programs and Major League Soccer.

And that, in turn, emphasizes the importance of coaching in feeder programs like the BIYSC, from which high school and college squads eventually get their players.

Coaching for kids ages 14 and under emphasizes skill development – moving them beyond “run in a mob and kick the ball hard” play – while for older players, it turns to strategy and tactics.

Too, like other sports, soccer is evolving.

For example, Clark said, “trapping” an oncoming ball – stopping it with your foot, thigh or chest – is an antiquated notion. The speed of the contemporary game is such that coaches now refer to “a good first touch” – directing the ball as well as controlling it, moving on and avoiding would-be tacklers.

Keeping up with that evolution is the job of Clark and the volunteers around him.

“We’ve got a great group of coaches,” Lund said, many of them former college players. “We’ve got a lot of parents who come to us with strong (soccer) backgrounds.”

And despite the new emphasis on top-level competitive play, Lund said the Bainbridge league works to accommodate players of all skill and interest levels.

“Almost any kid can kick a ball,” Clark agreed. “As long as they have some fun and have a good sporting experience, we’ve done our job.”

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