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A visit to La Masia

BARCELONA, Spain — It took less than 24 full hours in the capital of Catalonia for NorCal Premier Soccer to be granted its first coaching lesson: a visit to FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy Wednesday.

One day after watching Lionel Messi and Co. frustrate Borussia Mönchengladbach with constant possession in a 4-0 thrashing, we witnessed the hopeful future of Barcelona through a handful of youth training sessions.

It didn’t matter what the age group was — boys and girls of all ages took to the gated turf field complex — the speed and movement of play resembled that of the first team.

Pre-teens pinged the ball around the field with blistering pace as if it had a mind of its own, always finding the open player directly at his or her feet or the open space with the perfect weight.

But though the youngsters impressed with their skill in a way that isn’t usually evident in American soccer, NorCal staff was confident that the other-worldly abilities of these Catalans is replicable with our Californians.

“I was encouraged by how normal the kids are,” said NorCal Premier Soccer Director of Operations and San Ramon FC coach Daniel Chamberlain. “They are no different from our kids.  They have just been put in a highly professional environment.  It gives me hope that we could also produce those type of players.”

“They’re not extra terrestrial, they’re normal kids.”

They may be normal kids, but when a region produces that many top players over a small period of time (see: Spanish national team, the), the keys to success likely point to the infrastructure — in this case, the coaches training said kids.

“There’s one coach who’s coaching, the other who is organizing the exercise — playing the balls in, keeping the exercise moving, the coach who is training the goalkeepers,” Chamberlain said. “While that isn’t always the reality for us, we need to always find ways to ensure our sessions move faster or there’s more tempo to them instead of taking 10 minutes to laying out cones…the tempo was high for the entire training, there was no down time.”

NorCal technical staff member Mikey Varas, also on hand for the training session, agreed with Chamberlain’s assessment of the speed of play.

“For me, the tempo of training is really important,” Varas said. “It’s getting your team moving from one exercise to the next in a timely manner, really keeping training neat as opposed to doing an exercise, stopping, doing the next one, quickly moving through your training is something I always try to do but something I definitely noticed in their training sessions and want to do better at.”

The tempo of training was just one aspect of what Barcelona did well, however there were many others well within the control of the coaches that the NorCal staff came away with.

“The 2002’s didn’t use more than a quarter of the field at the same time,” Chamberlain said. “The spacing of the field — where people often complain about the space where they get to train, — but the top teams were using a quarter of a field and doing everything they need to do.”

For Varas, it went one step further though, with the watering of the turf prior to training, sending juggling youths into all corners of the field as they attempted to flee the massive sprinkler system  while warming up.

“That’s a whole other level of professionalism,” Varas said. “They’re trying to get fast zipping of the ball, so they watered the turf.”

Due to a variety of factors — funding, field space, culture, etc… — not every aspect of Barcelona’s training is replicable for NorCal Premier Soccer.

But perhaps through sessions like Wednesday’s and the continued coaching education initiative, NorCal can move closer and closer every day to becoming as prosperous of a soccer player-producing region as Catalonia.

Or at least start to close the gap between NorCal’s elite and La Masia