When money's no object
The dark brown eyes are those of a 9-year-old, soft and alight with possibility. The daily itinerary is that of a modern third-grader -- school, dance class, soccer, then, if she can get her homework done in time, "American Idol." With an excited smile, Nicole DiTomasso says she preferred Carrie Underwood, the big-haired country crooner bound for glory.
At soccer practice, though, Nicole might as well be an adult. She has Mia Hamm's former coach.
"A lot of kids are like, 'Whoa, you get taught by Tony DiCicco!' " she says. "I'm like, 'No big deal.' I'm used to him by now."
DiCicco built his reputation with the U.S. women's national team that he led to championships at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 1999 World Cup. He helped introduce women's soccer to the American public, and his record of 103-8-8 is the best in U.S. national team history. Now he works in central Connecticut, teaching 8- to 17-year-olds the basics of the game.
In some ways, he is in no less a professional environment. As technical director of the SoccerPlus Football Club, he offers instruction to his players at the $6 million Farmington Sports Arena, built at an industrial site in a suburb of Hartford. The air-conditioned facility has enough space (130,000 square feet) to house locker rooms, a cafe, a large equipment store and four indoor fields. Each of the fields is covered with the latest artificial turf that looks and feels like real grass.
DiCicco coordinates a large cadre of assistants, including former pro players like Janusz Michallik, the director of coaching, who know how to run a world-class practice. Nicole and her teammates get expert counseling on topics including nutrition and hydration. They receive formal, written evaluations with grades. They even wear expensive uniforms, modeled after teams in England's Premier League. After all, FSA SoccerPlus FC, as it's called in U.S. youth soccer parlance, is a "premier" club.
Premier clubs are private organizations highly focused on developing young talent. These programs are one level above, competitively speaking, travel teams, and two levels above the city recreational leagues that had defined youth sports for generations. They are for the elite of the elite, drawing talent, in the case of DiCicco's club, from towns up to an hour away.
In Connecticut alone, about 25 of these clubs have been created in the past decade. The demand is driven by parents willing to pay $1,600 and more for year-round training, plus travel expenses for tournaments across the country. The cost of playing on Nicole's team for its winter-only season is $500. In April, along with other kids under the age of 12, she returned to her travel team in Farmington.
"It's a lot of pressure," admits Sebastian DiTomasso, her father. "They probably shouldn't even be playing this level of soccer at this age. But everybody else is doing it, so either you jump on the bandwagon, or ... "
Local business owners, the DiTomasso family built the Farmington Sports Arena in part to give Nicole and her eight siblings and cousins an ideal training environment. Other parents bought into the concept so quickly, the arena turned a profit its first year, DiTomasso says. But even with a high-profile coach in DiCicco, FSA faces some fierce competition for the best young players in the local market.
"I had an 8-year-old girl who was called three times last week by the coach of another club," DiCicco says. "You have kids that age being recruited like they're big-time college prospects."
Looking out on the FSA fields from his roomy, second-floor office, DiCicco notes with a shake of his head that high school stars actually are more protected from recruiters than little kids -- NCAA rules limit a coach to one call per week. He recognizes the hazards of pushing up the development curve in team sports. But he also advocates the benefits of professional coaching for kids, which until recently was associated more with individual sports such as tennis and figure skating.
"I've seen more abuse on the sidelines from parent-coaches than pro coaches," he says. "Because we're pros, we're less likely to scream at kids. And pro coaches can better control the behavior of parents on the sideline because they'll listen to us.
"Don't get me wrong, we want to win. But I don't have to identify myself with my youth club's success. I've already identified myself with a world championship team. With a lot of these parent-coaches, the team is their identity. They get so caught up in winning that they lose perspective on what's needed in terms of player development."
Nicole learns skills at FSA that one day will surely help her play in high school, and perhaps beyond. At a recent FSA practice, DiCicco showed her how to get past a defender not by trying to dribble through her opponent, as kids her age instinctually do, but by turning her back to the defender to protect the ball, then reading the pressure and passing if necessary. Using that technique, Nicole scored in the next game.
She has been playing soccer nearly year-round since kindergarten. With travel and premium winter soccer, her commitment to the game only grows. For now, she says with a shrug, it is worth foregoing the more leisurely pursuits of other kids her age.
"It's boring just sitting in front of the TV," she says.
ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey can be reached at Tom.Farrey@ESPN3.com.
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