This year, the Frederick County boys soccer tournament returned with much fanfare. The event awards points to teams for various accomplishments, most notably wins and draws. But the format also administers points for every goal a team scores and, regardless of the score at the end of regulation, every match enters penalty kicks.
In the tournament, and throughout the regular season, there have been a number of talented strikers on display from various schools as the goal totals rise.
It all lends itself to an offensive-minded approach in a county where teams and coaches appear increasingly pleased with the play of their forwards. Coaches from other counties in The Gazette's coverage area (Montgomery and Prince George's) said they are noticing a decline in the position in their region.
“I've seen a huge increase, especially the last three or so years,” Frederick coach J.P. Smith said. “There have been some phenomenal strikers and I've seen a great deal more natural talent.”
Among the standout names in the county this season are Urbana's William Eskay, Frederick Jusseth Velazquez, Middletown's Zach Fontenot, Linganore's Matt Yurich and Brunswick's Drew Demich. All possess innate technical abilities that are difficult to find.
“We're not weak defensively [as a county], we just have guys who can break down defenses and put guys on their heels,” Tuscarora coach Todd Knepper said.
Despite the rule that prevents U.S. Soccer Academy players from participating on their high school team, the quality appears on the uptick in Frederick.
“We still don't have that flat out international superstar striker [in the U.S.] and I think we're maybe 10 [to] 15 years away from that happening. But we're making strides in the right direction,” Urbana coach Scott Schartner said.
Part of the reason for the increase in development, according to many of the Frederick County coaches, comes during training. It comes in allowing for innovation at the position.
“The development of these kids, we're allowing them to be more creative,” Smith said. “A lot of other American sports are a bit more structured. In soccer, the biggest thing that's difficult to understand is to let them be creative and not punishing them for trying new things. That's how you score goals.”
Schartner, who coaches arguably the top pure striker in the county in Eskay (10 goals, 5 assists in eight matches), agreed with that sentiment.
“Allowing these guys to experiment in training and to fail with some of their stuff is important,” Schartner said. “I think that was frowned upon, but by allowing them extra creativity it leads to better development.”
Frederick's Velazquez has eight goals this season, half of which Smith said have come on breakaways. Making smart runs is one small part of what's required of a top striker and Frederick coaches realize they're lucky to be able to witness so many playing at the same time.
“You can't really teach it, it's just something that comes to you,” Smith said. “You gain confidence the more you score.
“The biggest thing is you can't really define it. It's more of a natural talent. The more confidence they gain, they better they are.”
A formation shift away from the majority of teams deploying a standard 4-4-2 could play a part in the striker strength in Frederick as well. Teams experimenting with 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formations have allowed strikers to make varying runs and interact differently with their teammates.
“The system that some of these county teams are now playing, it's a little bit more focused on keeping these attacking players in the attacking third so they don't have as many defensive responsibilities,” Schartner said. “Obviously these guys will be getting more opportunities than their midfield counterparts on the same team.”
Striker always has been a coveted position in soccer. The skills are so unique. The player must possess speed, touch, knowledge of where and when to make runs, strength to hold the ball and the ability to finish.
“They're really good athletes. They're strong, they're fast and the big thing is they're really good technically,” Middletown coach Jeff Colsh said. “They can shoot, they can pass. It's a really good age group for boys going through right now.”
The unique skill set is why strikers tend to garner the most lucrative professional contracts.
This summer, Ligue 1 club Paris Saint-Germain agreed to acquire striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic from A.C. Milan for a record transfer fee of $25.8 million with a contract of roughly $18.1 million annually for three years. He joins Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo — his transfer fee was approximately $128 million — on the short list of premier strikers.
“The room for error goes down [as a striker],” Knepper said. “It's not like finding a holding midfielder or back, who, if they missed the tackle or mistimed it, somebody else can step in. One guy has one chance to do it and if they can't do it, it's a goal kick.”