Boy, Jeff Illingworth has some nerve.
He has coached the La Jolla Nomads' under-14 team for only two years, and already he is touting the soccer program as "without a doubt, the most highly successful in America."
Maybe it is.
If the Nomads didn't already have a pretty good idea about their standing among American soccer clubs, at least they know where they stand internationally. Foreign competitors at last month's Dallas Cup were offering as much as $18 for "Nomads" pins.
Thanks to the Nomads, U.S. youth soccer has gone from the doormat to status symbol.
While at Dallas Cup XI, however, the Nomads weren't just playing the part of young entrepreneurs. They also won the championship.
So maybe Illingworth isn't so full of gall after all.
The Nomads beat Sweden, 9-0, edged Peru, 1-0, and went up against Club America, a Mexican squad considered one of the top youth programs in the world.
Nomad players will tell you they were outplayed in that one, but they will also mention that they outscored Club America, 1-0.
"No, we didn't outplay them," said T.K. Inbody, one of the team captains.
"But it was a tight game," said Bryan Sproviero, one of the team's top two goal scorers.
It was not so close in the final, where the Nomads cruised by the Detroit Wolves, an Olympic development squad, 5-1.
With the victory, the Nomads became the only U.S. programto win a championship in Dallas. There were three other age divisions, and Nomad teams advanced to at least the quarterfinals in each.
But it wasn't so much that the under-14 team won. Rather, they impressed onlookers as much as how they won it.
Paul Gardner, a columnist for Soccer America, wrote this in his weekly column:
"I have watched a good many Nomads teams over the past few years, and have always found them . . . lacking in sophistication. But the Nomad boys were a delight to behold, with the courage and the confidence to repeatedly play the ball out of defense on the ground."
Thank you very much for noticing, says Illingworth, who despises the conventional U.S. coaching wisdom of molding a team around the athletic attributes of a few stars.
Illingworth would rather mold players into a team.
"It's not a question of consciously teaching a strategy," he said, "but we do tend to play more of a South American style. We play as a team, but with a lot of individual skill."
Instead, Illingworth said the tactical game is his idea.
"That's how I played," he explained. "I stress sound, one-touch passing."
Said Gardner: "They were much more thoughtful in their attack. A lot of American teams just hit the ball up the field. The Nomads were playing it up. I didn't see any evidence on this team of the ball being whacked upfield and the players scurrying about to catch up with it."
The Nomads' attack--often finished by Sproviero and Ivan Aguilar, each of whom scored five goals in the six games at Dallas--deserves second billing in Illingworth's mind. It was the defense, mainly goalie Beau Sager, that allowed the team to advance to the championship. Sager allowed just three goals in the six games.
"He may be the best goalie in California," Illingworth said. "He had a major impact."
The defenders in front of Sager included three state Olympic development team members: Damon Bradshaw, Robert Crawford and Charlie Lynch.
With that many players on the Olympic development squad, it would appear the Nomads are doing a fine job developing future players for the U.S. national team. But Illingworth doubts many Nomads will play at that level . . . or professionally.
It's a matter of economics. While one trend in soccer here is the continual upgrading of young players' skills, another is that the players themselves come from wealthy backgrounds.
Illingworth estimates the average family income of his 19 players approaches $250,000.
U.S. national team members make $26,000. Average players in England pull down $30,000. Average indoor players earn around $40,000.
"But these players (the Nomads) have other things to look forward to," Illingworth said.