“Think about how he moves with the ball,” Lesesne says to 18 youth soccer players assembled in two lines on the field at the College Charleston’s soccer stadium at Patriots Point. Total Futebol School is in session, and he moves as he speaks, his feet conducting the ball with impressive speed while his introductory talk connects the drill his students are about to run to the most advanced techniques at the highest level of world football.
A few moments later the two lines of youth players slalom rapidly through gauntlets of poles, trying to replicate the precise footwork demonstrated by their instructor. Lesesne alternately rides and encourages them, correcting technique, drilling Robben’s techniques into muscle memories that are years away from maturity. So it goes for an hour and 15 minutes, as the sun and gnats come up over Mount Pleasant.
This is the new and hopeful face of North American soccer, training with Class-A-licensed coaches at sunrise before hustling off for quick showers and carpools to various schools. The generations before them here grew up in the margins of American sport, practicing a few times a week on stubbly fields, often with coaches borrowed from “The Big Three.” This group grew up immersed in the global game, with international football role models, and understands that their soccer dreams depend on keeping up with kids their age from Finland to Swaziland.
Thirteen-year-old Alexander Dennis, a home-schooler who plays for South Carolina United Mount Pleasant, uses blunt math to explain his motivation for showing up for additional training three times a week.“In Europe, every kid trains five hours a day,” Dennis said. “Without this, I’d only get to train a few hours every other day.”
Even it up
At 29, Lesesne doesn’t look that different from his playing days. A standout midfielder from West Columbia, he starred at the College of Charleston and spent two seasons playing for the Charleston Battery before he took a job assisting Ralph Lundy Jr., the C of C boss who recruited him here. Today he’s a decorated college assistant with a Master’s degree in communications, a top coaching license and prominent roles at S.C. United Mount Pleasant and Ralph Lundy Soccer Academy (disclosure: RLSA is a topic sponsor of this site).
He’s also something of a thinker. And after a conversation with Alexander’s father about the family’s trip to Denmark, an idea started germinating in Lesesne’s mind: Why not create a skill-based (as opposed to age- or gender-based) training program for motivated youth players? The conversations about the idea began in January, and eventually Lesesne took the concept to Coach Lundy, who helped pioneer youth soccer training in the Southeast more than 35 years ago.
With Lundy’s backing, Lesesne began talking up his idea for a Total Futebol School around the local soccer community, using of some of RLSA’s contacts to reach out to prospective players. On April 2 the new school held its first training session, and Lesesne, Lundy and coach David Jordan have been teaching individual skills to players 11 and older through the school ever since. The morning sessions take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 a.m. to 7:15 a.m., with a Sunday session from 5 to 7 p.m. An online training log records each player’s hours and evaluates his or her performance, and Total Futebol School has access Silcox Gymnasium at the College when needed.
Lesesne plans to run the school from late July through late May every year, taking a break during the summer soccer-camp season when coaches and players are typically training more intensively.
In its second month in operation, the Total Futebol School has an enrollment of about 60 players. A session costs $15, but parents must buy them in blocks of six. By selling training sessions by the credit instead of in weeks, the school gives families the flexibility to decide when to use them. Some players come three times a week. Others show up only on Sundays, picking up pointers at the more relaxed weekend evening sessions.
The school pitches itself on quality, deliberate training, but quantity remains a significant part of the formula. Youth players in the United States train about 175 hours a year, Lesesne said. By comparison, players in the Ajax Academy in Amsterdam get 576 hours a year. In Brazil, the average can top 1,000 hours.
“It’s a big ask,” Lesesne admits. “It’s early in the morning, and we’re very demanding. And they’re on the ball when they’re here. There’s not a lot of standing around.”
Eat, sleep, dream
Beth Hamilton of Mount Pleasant is the mother of Owen Hamilton, an 11-year-old 6th grader at East Cooper Montessori School. She describes her older son as an “east-sleep-dream” soccer player for S.C. United, but her first thought was that Total Futebol School might be too hardcore for their family. SCUMP already kept him busy three nights a week, with games on the weekend, but Owen wanted more, she said. And since the school lets families come when training fits their schedules, her worries about the program faded quickly.
“It’s got kind of a cult following,” Hamilton said. “You’ll see the kids that want to do it following the coaches around.”
And though it’s probably not on her mind as Hamilton watches her son train with older kids at the C of C facility, this combination of professional coaching, private enterprise and youthful determination is pretty much a dream come true for the people charged with improving player development at the U.S. Soccer Federation. American soccer is certainly on the rise, but the competition is improving, too.
With so much riding on the success of the U.S. National teams, the debate over how to identify, train and develop domestic talent is sometimes heated. The nation’s soccer infrastructure is already beginning to shift away from its traditional foundation in scholastic soccer as it pushes for more of a club/academy-based system. But many Americans are turned off by the resulting inequities of expensive pay-to-play leagues and the highly structured, European-style approach to player development at some academies.
Total Futebol School threads that needle by offering relatively affordable, expert soccer instruction to players regardless of their club/school affiliation. And while coaches around the world will argue about philosophies of player development, all would largely agree that the more time kids spend playing, the faster they learn.
In countries like Brazil, where football is a way of life and techniques are handed down from one generation to the next in back yards and playgrounds, kids pick up world-class skills by playing pick-up games in the street. But most American kids lack access to that informal knowledge. When I asked 12-year-old Total Futebol and Cairo Middle School students Kevin Winglosky and Dylan McLoone how often they get to play pickup soccer, neither knew what I was talking about. The same held true for Dennis.
If these kids are serious about learning the techniques they need to advance and compete at higher levels, the streets aren’t going to cut it.
Training the total player
Soccer coaches probably spend a higher percentage of their available practice time working on technical fundamentals than youth coaches in some other sports, but team sports demand that coaches emphasize working together in a system over teaching technique.
At Total Futebol School, Lesesne and Lundy get to focus their sessions on installing and perfecting a series of precise footwork fundamentals that look baffling to soccer outsiders. On this Thursday, one of the techniques is a pigeon-toed dribble that gets more of the foot surface on the ball, facilitating a particular type of movement. Another was a two-touch change-of-direction maneuver, and the third was a side-to-side technique designed to shift a defender’s balance and set up a secondary move. Individually, each is simply an isolated technique. Once converted into drilled muscle-memory, they form the building blocks of future soccer creativity.
“The movement they had this morning was very deliberate,” Lesesne said. “But that’s how the progression works.”
After the skill instruction, the session progresses to more challenging drills. There are one-on-one battles, with points given for defensive stops and clear separation, and later a “two-v-one-v-one” drill that involves a pair of attackers trying to score on two defenders stacked one behind the other. With Lesesne and Lundy both running groups simultaneously at either end of the field, players get only a few seconds of rest before it’s their turn to go again. Lundy snaps at them occasionally if he thinks they’re not paying close enough attention, but his enthusiasm comes through when he sees something he likes.
“Look at that skill!’ he shouts during one-v-ones. “Is that Wingo? Those are magic feet this morning!” Moments later he stops the action and grabs two players to demonstrate how one technique sets up the opportunity to use another to gain an advantage. “Juggling is technique!” Lundy says. “Skill is doing something with it!”
Afterward, he sits on a bench and waves at the students as they rush from the showers to the parking lot, where minivans and SUVs idle at the curb. The curriculum they use is similar to the one he’s developed over 35 years at his summer soccer academy, and he swears by it. But there’s nothing else with a format like the Total Futebol School locally, Lundy said.
“It’s amazing how much they’re improving,” Lundy says, shaking his head. “Sometimes you see the improvement minute-to-minute.”
TOP IMAGE: Troy Lesesne, an assistant coach at the College of Charleston, is the driving force behind the Total Futebol School concept in Charleston. Dan Conover photos.