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XI Questions: Keith McHugh

02/10/2006, 6:21pm CST
By ERIC ANDERSON

MAYSA executive director

Age: 37.
Resides: Madison. (Also lived in Butte, Mont.)
Hometown: Arlington, Va.
Playing career: Started playing in 1974; played on recreational teams until 16; played on traveling team for eight years; rec teams since then.
Coaching career: Since 1993, has coached Under-8, Under-14 and Under-16 teams.
As a referee: State level 6.
Favorite clubs: None. I have favorite leagues — Argentina, Serie A (Italy), French, Spanish and English Premier Leagues. "As long as the quality of play is there, I could care less who's playing, I could care less the level of play, I could care less what the names are on the shirt. As long as it's thoughtful, intelligent well-played soccer, I'll watch it."
About MAYSA: The Madison Area Youth Soccer Association is a non-profit umbrella organization for organized youth soccer in Dane County and parts of Columbia, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Richland, Rock and Sauk counties. With more than 40 member clubs, MAYSA oversees more than 12,000 players and 900 teams. Eighty percent of the teams are recreational teams aged 14 and under. There are 12 members on the Board of Directors, and anyone is welcome to apply for one of the spots.

I. So you're the executive director of MAYSA. What do you do? 

I manage day-to-day operations ... including managing staff and monitoring budgets and activities. Supervise league structure, league changes, changes to policies — all of those are controlled primarily by our Board of Directors, but I manage the implementation of them — organize meetings for membership and the Board of Directors, and run tournaments — I am the tournament director for five tournaments (including the MAYSA Cup, which drew 137 member teams last year. This year's event is May 19-21).

II. Does the U.S. do a good job of developing soccer players?

I think the U.S. is trying to push a little too much, in my opinion. There's nothing wrong with trying to make a concerted effort to improve, we're just starting 100 years behind the other major powers in the world. We're two, three generations behind them, and sometimes it seems like we're trying to gain that ground in a single generation or two. I personally prefer to take more of a patience route, or that's my perspective — it will all come around. The characteristics of the United States is that we want to be the best in what we do, and I don't see this as any exception. When you have however million kids we have playing in the U.S., eventually those kids are going to have kids. ... The love of the game is going to hand down. It will all take care of itself.

Maybe not necessarily just let it be, I just see the pushing aspect can be detrimental. The expectation of kids to excel in performance by parents or that without being on the top team there is no future. One of the big things to remember is that very few people ever play professional sports and that this is an amazingly beneficial sport and recreational activity. What we need to do is create a passion for the game, and although our immediate generations may not feel the affect of it, it will happen eventually.

III. What's your most memorable moment as a player?

1977, I believe it was. U-8 or U-9, first championship game. We were the underdog so bad that the league gave our opponents the first-place trophies a week before the game. And we ended up winning 2-1. The players had to hand over the trophies in person at the field after the game. ... It's one of the things that right now, as an administrator, I reflect on every now and then and I think about that presumptuousness, and when I start seeing scores in leagues and tournaments come across my desk ...

It was hysterical. The interesting thing was, it was the parents of the opponents that I remember being completely bent out of shape. ... The kids were all cool about it. ... The protest went on for months. There was an offside call that blew a goal for them that would've tied the game.

(So it's safe to say MAYSA doesn't award trophies until every minute has been played) That is absolutely the case.

IV Soccer is the most popular participation sport for kids in the U.S. But why do so many of them stop playing when they get older?

I've been thinking about that a lot for the past two years, ever since I understood the intensity of that dropoff. ... It seems as though our leagues drop in half. (At what point?) Middle school. That's when extra-curricular activities start in the public school environment. You get the dance clubs, the math club, middle school sports, contact football. What I think is going on is they've been playing soccer since they were 6 years old, and they have a chance to try something else now.

It's not necessarily a huge dropoff, but what it is in my opinion is it's a dividing force amongst the school-aged population, whereas before at 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, you only have a few things those kids can do. You turn 12, the world opens up.

Altruistically, no, it's not a bad thing, it's great for people to have a lot of choices. Is it bad for our specific organization in retaining players? It's not bad, it is a challenge. We do try to keep players. It should be addressed, it needs to be addressed, there are a lot of different philosophies on it. ...

I'm starting to look at some theories about what we can do about it. You're always going to lose players at least for a little while, the important part is to make sure they know that ... this is a sport you can do almost until you drop. And still get exercise and still be challenged mentally and physically at the same time.

I can't count the number of stories I've heard of players who play at an elite level up until they are 18 years old, then go to college and never play. They just stop. They barely play intramural. I don't think it's that they don't want to play, but again that's another point where options balloon. At the same time, it is a question in my mind: Were they taught to have fun, or were they taught to play?

We need to emphasize the fun and the benefits of the sport and the fact that it is a game. Yes, there's going to be players who want to play at that elite level, but we need to make sure they understand the commitment that is going to be required, and that's kind of what get missed. Yeah, the parents want the players to play at this level, but the players may not necessarily want to play soccer. ... There are college scholarships out there, there are professional opportunities out there. But are you ready for that level of commitment, though? It's no longer an activity, it's your job. So you've got to think about it.

V. And a somewhat-related question: Why aren't there more soccer fans in this country?

Good question. I don't know the answer, I can only theorize on it. My take on it is that it's still the parents who control the budget for the people who are passionate about the game. It's still tough, for instance, for us in Wisconsin to go to a Chicago Fire game because of the cost. The cost of going there, eating there, driving there, staying there, driving back, not to mention the sheer time of it. I'm not entirely sure that our parental generation right now is prepared for that investment, that commitment to it. ...

VI. How much of a difference is there between the way the game is played and taught now vs. when you were growing up?

Oh my god, it's huge. It's amazing. The idea that every kid has a ball and every kids is working with a ball, as opposed to when I grew up, put the cones in a line, stand in a line, one kid dribbles, goes through the cones, comes back after a slalom. I grew up being taught pass the ball, pass the ball, pass the ball. Even from a very young age. Nowadays, we've learned what we need is hold the ball, hold the ball, hold the ball. Develop the technical, worry about the tactical later. I can see it in how I play now, it's affecting how I play, because I have a tough time going into pressure because I'm not comfortable on the ball. I was always taught, "Get rid of it, pass and go."

The other thing is goalkeeper-specific training. Goalkeepers were, when I grew up, rotate through and do your best. Now there is fantastic training out there. ...

VII. If you could change one thing about youth soccer right now, what would it be?

I think it would be to see more people smile. This is a game. It is for fun. ... As a referee, I think the game is fun. I know I like to see other referees having fun with players. I like to see parents and players smiling and having a good time with the game. Even when tough circumstances are experienced — a lost game, a tough call, a dicey situation with a coach — that's one of the beautiful things about this is game, is that there are so many learning experiences for people.

VIII. What's the best goal you've ever seen?

I believe it was Roberto Carlos on a free kick. Left-footed outswinger, bend it around the wall, I could have sworn that thing was going out of bounds. It was one of the most amazing goals I have ever seen. Unreal. It's just beautiful. That's the one that sticks out in my mind the most.

(We have an XI Questions first: This is the same goal Aaron Hohlbein chose in an earlier edition. The left back converted the "Greatest Free Kick Ever" for Brazil against France in 1997 in the Le Tournoi de France exhibition tournament.) Watch it here:

IX. What is the most important thing to instill in young soccer players?

That there's more than winning to this game. The rationale I keep hearing when parents want to push their players or want to play at the highest level is "They need the exposure, they need to play at the highest level to be challenged, they need to be seen, they need to be noticed." I've heard that from parents of 9-year-olds.

People need to realize what U.S. Youth Soccer is learning, which is players really don't physically develop until their teens. At 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, the players are still developing a lot of skill, a lot of talent, conceptual aspects of the game. To focus on more of "What did the player come away with today?" rather than "Did you score and did you win?"

X. How much does MAYSA have to deal with complaints, etc., from parents?

It's getting a lot better. The publicity of poor sideline behavior has really helped temper it. We still have a few every now and then. I still get phone calls, I still get e-mails and we still have to make phone calls and write letters. Unfortunately, we have to suspend people from time to time But it's tons better than what I remember it being when I started (in 2001).

When I watch, I watch the game from three different perspectives: I watch it as a referee, I watch it as a player and I watch it was a parent. So I see all these different levels of the game happening, and I think it's incredible.

XI. What does the future hold for MAYSA?

Continued growth (it has been growing at an average rate of about 5 percent per year). Madison is still growing; if you haven't seen the traffic, you're a hermit. MAYSA is going to continue to grow. The question is what shape is it going to take? At what level are we going to play? There's a few of the clubs around town that are competing at a regional level, and it won't be long before you see the same thing as you see from football players: They come from everywhere. And Madison is going to be on that list.

I see MAYSA's role as developing the pipeline of players. The competitive clubs will take care of the high-end, elite level of play and the training and the concepts. MAYSA is going to continue to develop the recreational side. And what we're seeing in the state right now is that the more outlying regions, the less-metropolitan areas, are the ones that are really booming. So that's probably what's going to happen next.

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