'Ultimate' battle is about building skills

The "Ultimate Soccer Player" one-on-one competition is designed to build young players' skills. Courtesy of H2O overdrive

IRVINE -- The competition is about finding the “ultimate” in soccer talent, and with the weight of two Hall of Famers behind it, the first one-on-one tournament in American soccer might be a step toward that aim.

That's sort of the point.

No Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, as “ultimate” as they come these days, is expected to be unearthed at next month's finals at UC Irvine, but the first-year Ultimate Soccer Player and Ultimate Soccer Goalie event is, ultimately, about improving skills.

Winning is nice, but it's the competition -- and the drills introduced -- that World Cup veterans Paul Caligiuri and Thomas Dooley hope will have the greatest impact on helping young players grow.

“What's the combination [of skills] needed to win a one-v-one contest? It's the same as in a one-v-one situation [in a game],” said Caligiuri, a UCLA alum from Walnut who played in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and starred in Germany and with the Galaxy. “Is it a combination of speed along with skill? Is it the grit? Is it creativeness? It's a little bit of everything. You have to be creative, you definitely have to have the skill level, you definitely have to have quickness -- not just speed, but the change of speed, the change of direction. And you have to have the ideas.”

The German-born Dooley, who captained the U.S. at the 1998 World Cup, notes that the event is about players having “to prove their striking, dribbling, defending and goaltending skills. This is not just any competition -- this is the ultimate challenge: a one-on-one battle to prove that you are the best.”

The Ultimate competitions, produced by hydration-drink producer H2O Overdrive -- Caligiuri and Dooley are ambassadors for the company -- are for boys and girls in the U-14 through U-18 age groups. Preliminary rounds have been staged in Coronado, Irvine, Ontario and Pasadena, and an additional round will be held Aug. 11 at Irvine Valley College, with semifinals and finals the following day. More information is available at H20 Overdrive's website.

The three-minute “Ultimate Player” games, on a small field with smaller goals, is designed to mimic game situations, and Caligiuri, a longtime coach who guides a youth team in Tustin, sees it as a tool that could be implemented into clubs' training regimens. Goalkeepers battle in full goal frames in a version of “goalie wars” that have long been popular.

“It's such a natural event,” Caligiuri said. “Growing up, you practice on your own a lot, basically starving for a buddy or someone to play with, be it your brother or sister or your friend, and you naturally create these games, these one-on-one duels. Just like in basketball; soccer's the same thing.”

Key are players' attacking skills -- their creativity and ability to beat a defender one-on-one -- but the defensive acumen also is tested. Caligiuri, a defender, and Dooley, who played as a holding midfielder and on the backline in Germany and in MLS, can appreciate that.

“You're trying to outsmart [the attacking player], too,” Caligiuri said. “As they're constructing their idea, you're playing a cat-and-mouse situation: Can I body-fake you, making you think I'm coming at you, then jump back so I'm in a better position to steal the ball? This forces you to cut off angles, weigh whether to pressure or delay [your opponent]. ... In my opinion, a one-on-one situation is awesome. It's always happening in the game.”

Developing these traits and improving players' abilities to think the game is the real aim here.

“It's not someone telling you what you need to do, when you need to do it,” Caligiuri said. “You're creating your own ideas and you're enhancing your skills and you're getting a better understanding about the angles of positioning as a defender. All of that, you walk off as a winner.”