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Guadalajara Coaching Education Trip: Part 1

GUADALAJARA – For the first time ever, NorCal Premier Soccer and SOCAL Soccer League have joined forces on an international trip featuring the explicit goal of bettering the level of play in the youth game-  in the entirety of California.

To accomplish this objective, 24 coaches from the northern and southern parts of the state arrived in Guadalajara this past weekend to embark on an 11-day journey full of lectures, training sessions, games, and continued dialogue.

Overall, 19 different clubs sent coaches to Mexico’s second-largest city as the trip began with an action-packed first day Saturday morning on the outskirts of town.

After taking in a U20 match between Liga MX sides Atlas and Club Leon in the morning, the coaches were whisked away to the first lecture of the trip: a two hour chat with former Club Deportivo Guadalajara Director and Head Coach Marcelo Michel.

The youngest manager in Liga MX history, Michel briefed the coaches on his game and development philosophy that saw him head two different departments of arguably the most popular club in Mexico for multiple years.

At Chivas, Michel installed a five-point strategy to achieve what he considered the ultimate goal of a soccer club: winning games and trophies. Those pillars included recruiting wisely, optimizing game strategy, recovering quickly, training smartly, and maximizing performance.

But even in one of the largest soccer hotbeds in the world, Michel said he encountered similar challenges that present themselves back in California as well.

“One of the main challenges we have is that too many of our players aren’t interested in learning about football,” Michel said, citing video games and what he called “antisocial media” as obstacles standing in the way of development. “At Chivas our competitors weren’t America or Rayados, but Netflix and Amazon. If football isn’t entertaining, why would people watch it?”

According to Michel, some of these distractions could be combated by going the extra mile in caring for players. “We see not an athlete, but a human being who practices sports, in this specific case, football,” he said.

From there, the coaches headed to the northeast side of the city to Estadio Jalisco for their first match of the trip, a Liga MX contest between the first teams of Atlas and Leon.

At the stadium in which Pele’s Brazil played five of their six matches during their title-winning 1970 World Cup campaign, the 24 from California watched as the visitors in Leon scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory that continued Atlas’ poor run of form after the club won two titles in 2022.

The following day, NorCal and SOCAL returned to Estadio Jalisco for a second division match between Universidad de Guadalajara and Tapatio, Chivas’ reserve team. The game ended 3-1 in the favor of the side that shares a name with a certain Mexican hot sauce before the coaches piled back into a conference room for a presentation given by Atlas assistant coach Giancarlo Salazar.

Despite being in the middle of preparations for a midweek Concacaf Champions League match, Salazar spent over an hour with the coaches, answering any questions they had about his game model, youth development philosophies, or anything else on their minds.

Perhaps influenced by time spent abroad, Salazar resolved to approach the youth game in a much more patient manner than some of his countrymen are known for in a land where coaches are hired and fired in amounts of time measured in days rather than months or years.

“For me with the youth, the most important things are the player and the ball, not the system,” Salazar said. “If you’re not technically proficient, it’s hard to break into the first team.”

“In Mexico most teams want to win before setting up a relationship with the ball,” he added. “There’s too many long balls. Liga MX teams used to have up to 500 passes in a game but now it’s hard to find that. In Europe teams can have up to 900 passes.”

After Salazar’s lecture, it was time to call it a night as the 24 adventuring souls required sleep before Monday’s Chivas deep dive.

The first day of the week began with the trip’s first training session, which featured a match between the club’s Tapatio and U18 players who didn’t play many minutes over the weekend.

From there, the group was led into a second story office at the club’s state-of-the-art Chivas Verde Valle facility for a lecture from Sporting Director Fran Perez.

Though he’d only just acquired his current title, Perez gave the coaches a brief history of the club before explaining what makes it unique: the fact that they only field players who are eligible for the Mexican National Team.

According to Perez, this policy has forced Chivas to make detailed plans for the future while showing more patience with their youth players than the average Liga MX side do.

“We need to be absolutely sure that a player can’t make it before we move on from them because even if there’s a small chance they can play professionally, it’s better to keep the player,” Perez said. “It’s hard for us to get players on the open market.”

Because rival Mexican teams know that Chivas can only sign domestic players, they frequently jack up the asking price and force the club to essentially pay a “Chivas tax.”

Guadalajara attempts to combat this through their 50 youth academies that span across Mexico and parts of the southern United States, though Perez acknowledged that they probably needed twice as many to reach the lofty heights the club reached in the 1960s.

Whether they achieve that goal or not, Perez stressed that the importance of his club’s vision involved catering to each individual player, rather than the team overall.

“We coach players, not teams,” he said. “Is the U18 team going to become the first team or is a player from the U18 team going to make the first team?”

Following Perez’s lecture, the coaches were granted an audience with current Chivas first team player JJ Macias, who answered one question from each coach in a highly-detailed and thoughtful 90 minute chat.

Lastly, the day ended with a talk with Tepatitlan Director Fredy Juaregui, who the coaches met in the lobby of their downtown hotel.

Overall, it was an excellent culmination of the first third of the trip, which several coaches have already found useful in their goal of becoming better at their chosen profession.

“What’s stood out for me so far was the professionalism of each of the clubs,” said Carlos Villarreal of Alum Rock and Bay Area Surf. “I expected it, but it has exceeded what I was expecting.”

“Marcelo Michel was amazing and so was his methodology of using data but also the human aspect of youth development,” Villarreal added. “Building relationships to make better humans is one of the goals of the clubs that I work at. His lecture made me feel, not necessarily vindicated, but that we’re doing the right thing.”

“Alum Rock is a smaller club and eventually our players are going to go to a bigger club, but we want to make sure that they are good humans before they’re great soccer players,” he concluded. “Everything we’ve done here has been first class from the games and the meetings – everyone has been so humble, but so real.”