Growing up in Southern California, Eddie Lewis always was drawn to soccer. It was hard not to be given how closely linked Latin communities are in that part of the country.
However, at age 15, the Cerritos, Calif., native realized he was above the curve athletically but technically a step behind his peers. The left-footed Lewis eventually was taken as a last-ditch recruit for UCLA’s men’s soccer program, unsatisfied with where his game was at.
As Lewis’ sophomore year rolled around, he had an idea, sparked by watching UCLA’s basketball team practicing on smaller hoops: use a tennis ball to improve his touch. In a matter of weeks, Lewis saw marked improvement, prompting him to buy a tennis ball machine, venture to nearby industrial parks and repeatedly hone his touch.
“My goal was 1,000 reps a day,” Lewis said. “As you could imagine, relative to a soccer practice, bringing it down with my chest or heading it or bringing it out of the air, I was getting six months of practice in a couple afternoons. In the first six or eight months, I caught up rapidly and from there had a successful soccer career.”
That’s putting it lightly. Capped 82 times by the U.S. national team, Lewis played top-flight soccer in England from 2000 to 2008, and played seven seasons in Major League Soccer, ranging from 1996 to 2010. He’s one of the best American players ever, at least in the modern era.
But as Lewis’ playing career came to a close, he wanted to take his tennis ball idea and scale it, all geared toward player development. Step in TOCA, which launched officially in January 2017 as a pitch-back-like machine designed for personalized training.
TOCA is portable, battery powered (up to three hours of use) and connected to an app that tracks use. TOCA also uses a smaller ball than a typical size 5 one, and can be adjusted to fire balls at various speeds, angles and intervals.
“Every situation in a game, the movement is on an angle,” Lewis said. “You want to open up, receive the ball on an angle and play in a different direction. From TOCA’s perspective, we try to maximize every single repetition by making it a match-related situation.”
Since going from concept to practice, TOCA has partnered with five Major League Soccer teams — New York City FC, Los Angeles Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake. The company also works with women’s national team players Alex Morgan and Christen Press, plus men’s national team players Gyasi Zardes, Sacha Kljestan and Omar Gonzalez.
Another TOCA believer is Steve Nash, the retired NBA All-Star, who also is a part owner of the Whitecaps.
“He uses a TOCA machine to train his touch and get better,” Lewis said. “He’s a soccer junkie and is always trying to improve his skills. He’s a tremendous athlete and a great guy.”
In no way, though, is TOCA designed to replace practice, Lewis said. Rather, the product is designed to complement injury rehab or team-training sessions, where focus often lies on the collective instead of the individual. There’s no head-to-head component.
“We get players better technically, but we dramatically improve their confidence,” Lewis said. “Maybe it’s how to approach a ball coming out of the air, or moving onto the ball with their weaker foot.”
While a TOCA user can bring his or her machine to a local field, Lewis said the company also is bullish on its training centers. They have over a dozen such facilities set up throughout the country, and are looking to expand.
The studios have a trainer for every session, catered to what each player needs to work on. A vital aspect, Lewis said, is that TOCA training centers are club neutral.
“We’re not your coach or deciding what position you play or if you start,” Lewis said. “We’re focused on you getting to the next level. The mistake-friendly environment, players aren’t used to that, but it’s something they grow to love. No matter how many times you mess up, it doesn’t get on you.”
TOCA also is looking to become interactive, Lewis said, much like the Footbonaut machine Bundesliga clubs Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim have pioneered. The Footbonaut places a player into a cage, whereby the machine passes soccer balls, which then must be sent through a highlighted square. It’s a step forward that Lewis feels is essential — blending the cognitive with the technical.
“Decision making combined with technical ability is 90 percent of the game,” Lewis said. “We can stimulate the environment and prepare players better for those game-like situations.”
Lewis said TOCA hasn’t fully developed the cognitive element, but he maintains it’s an important step forward in helping develop players. And at the core, that’s where TOCA’s driving focus lies: improving one’s first touch.
“If you want to play in the NBA, there’s a size barrier to get in the door,” Lewis said. “In soccer, it comes down to ball mastery. You can be just as deadly whether you’re as small as Messi or big as Ibrahimovic. Either way, it means that technically you have to be sound.”