Over this past weekend, Flathead Soccer Club (FSC) hosted one of the club’s two annual youth soccer tournaments: the 2021 Tamarack Fall Classic. Dozens of teams throughout Montana and several out-of-state teams made their way to Kalispell to play in one of the premier youth soccer tournaments in the state.
While players and coaches alike made lasting memories on the field throughout the weekend, the tournament was only made possible by the hard work and dedication of club officials and board members. FSC Director of Coaching Damion Blackburn praised the club-wide efforts that went into the weekend.
“I know how hard Jill Marlow (FSC Programs Director), Kevin Fox (Club President), and all the board members work to make sure these events go off without a hitch,” said Blackburn. “These events are a major financial driver, not only for the club but also for various businesses throughout the community that we work with, including the vendors.
One of the most critical aspects of a successful and healthy club soccer environment is the continued support of the parent base. That importance is magnified during tournament weekends, and the role of parent volunteers over the weekend was crucial to the overall success of the tournament.
“The parent perspective from me, especially the set up and break down, was phenomenal,” said Blackburn. “They were organized, with a lot of volunteers that wanted to be there to help.”
On the field, the club had an impressive showing, including three championship-winning teams, the FSC Academy Green Girls, FSC 2011 Boys, and the 2007/2008 Flathead Valley United Boys. While strong results are always encouraging, Blackburn stressed that he was more pleased to see the club as a whole buying into a style of possession-oriented soccer that the teams can be proud of.
“Anytime you can have multiple teams win at an event that’s a great sign, but more importantly looking at their games, looking at their performances, the style of play for the teams was very interesting to watch, because there were very stark differences between how our teams tried to play comparatively to some of their opponents,” said Blackburn.
The stark differences in style of play can largely be attributed to an investment in the training environment and equipping the players with the ability to utilize different approaches to solving problems that may be presented on the field. Blackburn highlighted the Scan, Choose, Do motto that has been ushered into the club’s rhetoric and simplifies the importance of decision-making and autonomy on the field for players at all age groups.
“The coaches have done a great job initially of jumping onto that mantra,” said Blackburn. “When I first arrived, we saw a lot of lines, laps, and lectures. Now we see a lot of rondos, positional games, training matches, and activities with context.”
The change in approach on the training ground is now starting to pay dividends on the game field. Over the weekend, I was able to speak with our three championship-winning head coaches, Tino Aleman-Chaves (FSC Girls Academy Green), Jake Zalesky (FSC 2011 Boys), and Scott Strobel (2007/2008 FVU Boys), who all echoed the importance of embracing and implementing a brand of soccer that values possession with a purpose.
Academy Girls: Tino Aleman-Chaves
One of the most impressive teams of the tournament was our very own Flathead Soccer Club Academy Green Girls team, who finished tournament play undefeated en route to a 4-3 win in the championship over Helena Youth Soccer Association’s (HYSA) 2012 Girls. Led by Head Coach Tino Aleman-Chaves and Assistant Coach Rowan Crabtree, the girls achieved a high level of success on the field in large part due to their hard work on the training ground.
“Our girls have worked on foot skills, dribbling moves, passing, and everything combined just helped them a lot,” Said Coach Aleman-Chaves. “I don’t think the other teams were ready to figure out a way to stop the attacking because we don’t have just one player; the girls have gotten really good at finding space and working as a team.”
The team's attacking prowess was on full display as the team scored a dominant 16 goals in 4 games. More important than the results, though, was the team’s willingness to possess the ball and stay true to their team identity, an identity that these girls continue to cultivate on their own.
“As coaches, we don’t want to tell them what to do, and I think that’s the secret,” said Aleman-Chaves. “They get on the field, they have fun, and if they mess it up, they laugh, and they try to do it again. They have the freedom to be creative, and I think that’s important.”
The freedom to be creative is a mindset and ideology that is carried out in a practice environment that helps equip players to problem solve and work as a collective on game-day, but more importantly, allows them to have fun.
Coach Aleman-Chaves alluded to the importance of making the practice environment fun, inviting, and competitive. He draws on his childhood experience of playing soccer at school during recess and after school in his neighborhood, back home in Costa Rica, as a tool in developing his practice plans. Aleman-Chaves is working to recreate an environment that celebrates creativity more than results.
“I praise great passes, more than goals,” said Aleman-Chaves. “I feel very fortunate to coach within a shared club philosophy that isn’t about micromanaging the players, but just letting them play and have fun.”
Flathead Soccer Club 2011 Boys: Jake Zalesky
As a first-time head coach, Coach Jake Zalesky has been working to bring his team together, develop a brand of progressive soccer, and try to get some results: on Sunday, it all came together for Zalesky and the 2011 FSC Boys.
The boys went undefeated through the tournament's group stage and earned a spot in the tournament final before winning a thrilling game against MT Surf in a penalty kick shoot out. Coach Zalesky could not say enough positive things about his team’s performance over the weekend.
“The boys were exceptional this weekend,” said Zalesky. “They showed defensive acumen, only allowing one goal in the first three games, offensively they were a threat to every team they played, and the overall play was a joy to watch.”
Going through a penalty kick shootout can be nerve-wracking for most veteran players and coaches; for Zalesky and many of his players, Sunday’s shootout marked the first of their respective coaching and playing careers. Zalesky lamented his team’s camaraderie and positive attitude throughout the entirety of the tournament but especially in the final moments of the championship.
“When we were getting ready for penalties, the boys on the field were chomping at the bit to take a penalty; I thought that was a great sign of the boy’s confidence in themselves,” said Zalesky. “Even when some of our boys missed their penalty kicks, they held their heads high, and their teammates encouraged them afterward. The team was ecstatic after winning, especially in such a dramatic fashion, and they deserved it.”
Stylistically, the 2011 boys continue to work on maintaining possession and understanding how to utilize that possession to break other teams down. Zalesky commented on the team’s continued work to play their style and the club’s support behind them.
“I think the team is making great strides in how they play; the boys are focussed on maintaining possession and pressing to win the ball back when we don’t have it,” said Zalesky. “It is a pleasure to coach for a club that has the desire and vision to play this brand of football.”
Flathead Valley United 07/08 Boys: Scott Strobel
Coach Scott Strobel has been working with the Flathead Valley United 07/08 boys on playing a brand of possession-based soccer that they can be proud of. During this year’s Tamarack Fall Classic, that hard work paid off in the form of a dynamic and dominant tournament run, culminating with a 5-1 victory over Montana Rush Soccer Club’s 07 Boys.
“Every day, these boys are gaining confidence, working on their first touch and working on getting the ball off their foot,” said Strobel. “We have been working on connecting passes and maintaining possession, and this weekend the lightbulb came on, and with that, it created more opportunities throughout the entire weekend.”
After breaking teams down through maintaining possession of the ball for long periods of play, the boys were clinical at finishing their opportunities in front of goal, scoring 12 goals in four tournament games. In the championship game, though, the team was forced to overcome adversity after Montana Rush clipped the game's first goal. Strobel lauded his team’s ability to overcome the deficit and play their way back into the game.
“For them to come out and score first, it gave our boys a reality check,” said Strobel. “I was wondering how we were going to respond. Are we going to hang our heads, or are we going to fight even harder? The boys came out and fought harder, scored a goal to tie it up, and in the second half put another four in, and showcased their ability to respond and stay mentally tough.”
While the tournament victories provided an opportunity to see their dedication to the game pay off with results, Strobel remained adamant that this season is more about developing an identity than winning games.
“As a coach, you want to remind them that it is not all about the results,” said Strobel. “I think it’s just a transition in the club, to play possession and play the right kind of soccer, even if we are losing some games along the way. The boys are starting to see the bigger picture, and it’s all about confidence.”