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NorCal Coaching Education Trip: Bayer Leverkusen

LEVERKUSEN, Germany — The best-supported soccer league in the world may have several storied clubs spread all throughout the country, but no matter who ends up with the German Bundesliga title each year, one region in the country stands far above all others in producing players.

That region is North Rhine-Westphalia, one that seven of the 18 first division clubs in the country call home.

And those at Bayer Leverkusen, one of those seven clubs, will tell you that this is both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity and it’s a threat,” said Bayer academy coach Slawumir Czarniecki. “We have very good youth competition at the youngest levels, but we also have to fight with all these other clubs for the best players in the area.”

This was just one of the many lessons that NorCal Premier Soccer’s Directors of Coaching learned during the final portion of their stay, which consisted of two days of lectures at Leverkusen, followed by taking in a match against Hertha Berlin.

After starting the first day off with a pair of presentations from Bayer’s sports performance professionals, NorCal received a crash course on Bayer’s scouting methods from Elias Khalag, who explained how the club fights through unique challenges to develop players.

Citing the massive gap between the third and first divisions in Germany, Bayer are one of the few clubs who don’t have either a reserve team or U23 squad and instead look to incorporate players into the first team as soon as possible or sell them along as once they turn 19, they’re only eligible for play in the top division.

Despite the relative lack of size of the city of Leverkusen and a budget that pales in comparison to local rivals Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, Bayer have still remained relevant in bringing players to the top level such as Leroy Sane and most recently German starlet Kai Havertz.

According to Khalag, this is done by identifying talent at an early age and then nurturing it in a way that gives the club a big role in each youth players’ life — instead of running a boarding school, Bayer either picks up their youth players from their homes every day or arranges for host families to provide housing for their youngsters.

“We are the other family,” Khalag said, the first of many times someone from the club uttered that all-important phrase.

Following Khalag’s presentation, NorCal’s coaches were given a true treat as Bayer Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz gave everyone in attendance a two-hour presentation on his team’s tactical identity and what to expect in their next Bundesliga match.

Bosz also took questions about his own philosophies as a coach, speaking at length on a variety of topics.

“People always ask me what type of players I want and I always say that I want intelligent players,” Bosz said. “Intelligent players anticipate, they don’t react.”

Under Bosz last season, Bayer went from the middle of the table and 52 percent possession to a top-four finish and nearly 70 percent of the ball by season’s end.

“I found out that I get very nervous when my team doesn’t have the ball so I decided that I wanted to always have the ball,” he said. “Good players keep the ball, so I want to let good players play.”

The following day, Bayer gave NorCal a full tour of the club’s facilities, which include a gym, massage rooms, a cryotherapy chamber, and several other data-driven devices used to track player performance.

“How scientific the game has gotten is incredible,” said Fresno Pacific head coach Jaime Ramirez. “They have some of the state-of-the-art methods and equipment at Bayer to test various aspects of an athlete in terms of their performance from the physical aspect to the psychological aspect.”

This was followed by Czarniecki’s presentation, which again reinforced Bayer’s familial ideals.

“Every player is a human being and every human being is different,” he said. “You have to find the key to each player in order to make a difference in their lives.”

“Financially, we can’t battle with Bayern or Dortmund,” he added. “But with this academy, we can battle them on the field.”

And with that, the day was over and NorCal’s Directors of Coaching went on their way with a little more knowledge in their head, ready to bring it back to their other families in Northern California.