The soccer world consists of endless stories about young players grinding through hardship and sacrifice despite their lack of privileges. However, in the United States, these types of players are even harder to find. It remains an extraordinary event for a poor child to end up making it in the USA – not necessarily because of the lack of talent, but rather inability to pay to get in front of the right people. Soccer in USA is still regarded as a game of the rich as opposed to its perception in the rest of the world – where it can be the only route a poor family can take to escape from poverty (Similar to the NBA and NFL).
As former U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo puts it: “It’s a rich, white kid sport”.
The sport is too expensive for many Americans to adopt at a young age. As a result, the system robs the U.S. Soccer Federation of the type of youth talent that rises through the ranks in other nations. We all know that sports have been commercialized in the U.S. Simply look to any current youth wearing the fresh new gear at practice, while playing on artificial fields that those across the world have never seen before. (To the world a nice empty lot and a ball will do.)
That said, we all know the pay-to-play youth system is broken, but it seems no one can agree on how to fix a system that doesn’t develop players organically without a capitalistic mind. To understand the difference between the USA and the rest of the world you simply have to look into the worth or value of a player. Across the world the worth or value of a player is based off of their ability. If they play well, then the local club can promote them or sell them player to a larger club. Local clubs also tend to be filled with volunteer coaches who expect you to pay for a jersey at most. While in the USA the value or worth is only found in the pocket book and what a player can afford for coaching, training, uniforms, and travel. At this point it seems pay-to-play isn’t going anywhere. There’s too much money involved and too many people making it for that to change.
The pay to play system is a billion dollar industry that instead of promoting U.S soccer development, is slowly draining the oxygen from any hope of the USA being competitive on the national level. With around three million registered youth players in the USA (girls and boys), let’s say they all pay $2000 per year, you will find yourself a $6 billion dollar business. That kind of money is just to give your child a head start. If you have any hope of your child making it to the big leagues, you pay, travel, and risk more as they get older. For example at ages 11-13 – assuming your kid is good enough – they make a team in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Rough estimates show the costs between $2,500 – $3,000 per year, with travel potentially doubling that amount. Practice is four to five days a week, you take long trips every weekend, and playing time is not guaranteed. As a result of this alone, you alienate populations across the U.S from the opportunity to succeed.
Now I was lucky enough to have a background where I could afford to attend the best clubs in my region, however it was extremely stressful and hard on my parents. As many who play sports know, the friendly ole carpool is key to making that work. That said, living in Pittsburgh, I had a short stint with the Columbus Crew Academy system. Ultimately this was a perfect scenario – I was playing with the number one recruit of my class (Will Trapp), I was in the U.S Academy System, and as a player I was developing under one of the best programs in the U.S. However, it was a four plus hour drive from Pittsburgh to practice four times a week – not including weekend travel across the nation for games. As a result, I ultimately had to quit the perfect scenario because it was too hard and financially difficult for my parents. Although I had to quit, I had the ability to get in front of the right people, where others might not even be able to afford or make it to a practice at their local club. Scenarios like this make me think about how many Tim Howards and Clint Dempseys we are losing through this system.
Taking a look at the map below, you will see where all of the U.S. Soccer Academies reside for U-15 to U-19. A quick glance will show we lack the proper development foundation.
We currently develop our soccer players opposite to how our basketball players are bred. Think about the rec centers and rutted outdoor courts with frayed nets, without coaches or parents, without uniforms or referees, in pick-up games where kids hone one-on-one skills without the fear of adult disapproval, with freedom and creativity. Any soccer mind would be reminded of the Brazilian greats, but imagine that same creativity being developed in the U.S. by simply allowing players to play openly and for love of the sport.
We tend to forget that the pay to play system we have in place today would of never allowed us to receive US soccer greats such as Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey if it was implemented when they were youth. Both individuals struggled financially and watched their local peers and family sacrifice everything to give them a chance. The Dempseys scrimped, saved and father Aubrey even sold his boat and hunting guns to fund Clint’s career and the six-hour round trip from their home in east Texas to Dallas. This is a risk still associated with the widespread ‘pay-to-play’ system in the US, where parents have to shell out for their youngsters to participate with elite youth clubs. Without that money – or a lucky break like Dempsey or Howard – then talents from lower socio-economic backgrounds can slip through the cracks.
Innovation is a cornerstone of U.S. culture in so many industries, and yet in soccer we train our players based upon a model introduced decades ago. Until we abandon our arrogance and complacency based upon past success, we will not adequately prepare our young players for the future. We have a unique opportunity now on both the men’s and women’s side of U.S. Soccer to rethink and redesign talent development.