Embracing a Foreign Concept

By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

Westfield All-Met center midfielder A.J. Sheta has scored in all but one game this season, but when asked to describe his favorite goal, one stood out.

"It was my goal against Oakton," Sheta said. "I think every member of the team touched the ball."

The play started near the Bulldogs' goal, where the ball was played on the ground across the field by the defensive backs, switching the point of attack. The ball moved up teammate Kyle Guthrie's sideline with one-touch passes and eventually was played inside where a foul was committed by the Cougars. Sheta scored off the free kick. The goal was special, Sheta said, because of the intricate play that set up the score.

"It was good soccer to watch," Sheta said. "It's not just because the goal was scored. It was because of the effort, all of the one-touch passing."

The sequence that led to Sheta's goal is an example of a new trend in high school soccer in Northern Virginia -- where teams that once relied on a direct, long-ball style now play a possession-oriented game. And for players such as Sheta who have grown up playing "possession soccer" on their club teams, the change is welcome.

"My freshman year the average team would just kick the ball around," Sheta said. "Now the teams are starting to play soccer the way it should be played."

The aim of possession soccer is to string together a number of passes in order to dictate the tempo of the game and eventually catch the opposing team off balance by creating holes in the defense. But the style depends on skilled players who can control the ball and play under constant defensive pressure.

Previously, Northern Virginia high schools were dominated by the long-ball style, where there are far fewer passes and players under pressure can play a 40- or 50-yard ball in the air to a player downfield. The system, also called "direct," helps to disguise a team's weaknesses, and is considered less demanding for the players. It is also considered less attractive, and when playing against an organized defense, far less effective.

When Westfield Coach Tom Torres played at West Potomac from 1987 to 1991, the idea of possession soccer in high school seemed foreign.

"I played on a state cup championship team, but my high school team was absolute crap," Torres said. "Nobody, Jefferson maybe, tried to pass the ball a little bit but nobody was really about the game. And there were players that wanted to and could, but . . . I don't think I ever heard my coach once say 'We're just going to knock it around a little bit.' You didn't see it.' "

The long-ball style dominated from Torres's playing days to as recently as five years ago. When asked to recall Virginia high school teams that have played possession soccer in the past 10 years, even the most seasoned coaches struggle to find examples.

"Robinson's always tried to knock it around," Stone Bridge Coach Randy May said. "Lake Braddock . . . [Coach] Joe Soos is a real possession-oriented guy."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company