U-17 joint sessions benefit both sides

By Joe Frollo

As shoulder pads cracked Monday at Whitaker Fields in Austin, Texas, coaches called out instructions to their players.

“Get lower,” they yelled. “Use your hands, explode out, fill your lanes.”

The difference during USA Football Under-17 International Development Week is that the coaching isn’t always in English.

About 40 players from Sweden have been practicing alongside the nearly 120 American boys, running the same drills, catching the same passes and learning the same lessons – sometimes from coaches with a strong Texas drawl, other times in their native language.

The message is the same, though: Use every opportunity and absorb every word this week to make yourself a better player.

“It’s great,” said Erik Bergstrom, a Swedish linebacker. “I’m picking up a lot of little things, the finer points of the sport. It’s really helping me improve.”

Bergstrom has been playing football for just 18 months since making the switch from swimming and track. He said he is learning from both the U.S. coaches and the players.

He watches American players move naturally within the game. He wants to become so familiar with football that his instincts take over within the flow of competition.

“I like the physicality of the game,” Bergstrom said. “I still need to think about what I am doing, but I am getting better at it every day.”

Natural instincts and experience are what separate American players from  their Swedish counterparts, said Team USA Blue head coach Louie Becerra of St. Dominic Savio in Austin, Texas.

The Swedes are learning, though, and they don’t usually have to be told something twice.

“They are so observant, like sponges out there,” Becerra said. “They watch everything – even the coaches. There is a Swede videotaping practices, and one time when I pulled a U.S. player over for one-on-one instruction, the videographer turned to focus on us to see what I was saying to the player and how I said it. They really want to learn.”

That enthusiasm is contagious, said quarterback Tucker Bierne of Miami Christopher Columbus High School.

U.S. players are competing on the field against the Swedes but also taking on mentorship roles.

During one drill, Bierne helped a Swedish quarterback who didn’t understand what a coach was telling him.

“He listened to what I was saying just like it was a coach,” Bierne said. “There was no ego, just desire to get better. Everyone here shares a love for this sport, and that is so obvious when you practice alongside the Swedish players. They are just like us in that they just want to get better.”

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SECOND TIME AROUND  Bierne also took part in the 2011 Under-15 International Development Week in Canton, Ohio. His father, David, said Tucker still keeps in touch with players from that event, including some players and coaches who are here in Austin.

“The cultural exchange is the best part of this week,” David Bierne said. “Tucker has made friends with people from another country that he will have for life. The world is so small these days with the Internet. You have to take advantage of this kind of opportunity.”

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PAINFUL LESSON  U.S. linebacker Christian Drews of Ramona (Calif.) High School missed Monday’s practice with a high ankle sprain. Sitting on the sideline with ice on his ankle was difficult for the American teenager, but it’s a lesson his father, Jeremy, hopes he can learn from it.

“He’s like everyone else in that he wants to get out there and compete,” Jeremy Drews said. “He’s also like everyone else in that at times he thinks he’s invincible. It’s better that this happened here than during the season.”

Christian Drews hopes to be ready by Thursday’s games at Burger Stadium.