It all started back in the early 2000's with US Soccer’s push to win The World Cup by 2010. We saw the emergence of programs like Project-40 which was designed to sign the best and brightest players to professional contracts with MLS so that they could continue to develop at an accelerated rate compared to all the other players their age playing college soccer. While there is no question that this is a great program to develop these elite players, this only addresses a small group of players that could flourish at the next level. What MLS and US Soccer failed to recognize was that while they were picking the top few players to turn pro, they were neglecting the masses, and that is where the real opportunity lies. The problem can be summed up in one word: Money.
The United States is the only country that has managed to turn the world’s poorest sport into a rich kid’s game.
There are 5 million youth soccer players in the United States. Are we so naive to think that only producing a handful of professional players is not a massive failure? Five million people is more than the total population of some countries in Europe who manage to churn out top professionals year after year. The problem in the United States comes down to money.
The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. There are people from many different cultures, religions, ethnicities, beliefs, and philosophies. The one thing that all of these groups have in common is the game of soccer. It is the world’s unifying game. There are massive groups of people in this country who grow up with a passion for the sport that many Americans do not. We see it primarily in the Hispanic community. Hispanic players grow up with soccer as the #1 sport in their household. They are brought up to understand and feel that passion that comes with supporting your team, the sadness that comes when they lose a game, and the jubilation of each victory. A typical American player is brought up with Sundays being the big day in their house because that is when NFL games are played. They usually do not discover soccer until they are older, and only because their parents signed them up because all of their friends were doing it too.
My point about the above is that at the young ages of youth soccer the difference in these two upbringings is extremely apparent. Socioeconomically challenged players and teams completely dominate other teams that are comprised of mostly socioeconomically privileged players. Most of the challenged teams are coached by one of the player’s fathers who do it for free, while most of the privileged teams are coached by professional coaches who get paid by the parents.
This is where the money comes into play. Because of the American pay-to-play model many of these players end up getting lost and have their development halted because they cannot afford the high price of professional coaches.
Challenged teams will dominate most other teams until they are about 12 years old. At this point the players tend to understand the game more than their parent coach. This is the turning point. This is the moment when a professional coach is needed. A typical privileged team will have had a professional coach all along who will be able to continue the player’s and team's development well beyond that of a parent coach.
Professional coaches cost a lot of money and a typical challenged team will not have the funds to hire a professional on a consistent basis.
Make soccer free. It is as simple as that.
Now I know this is a ridiculous statement because professional coaches still need to get paid. So the question becomes, “How do we pay professional coaches without charging parents any fees?” We will get into this a little later. First let’s start with what the affects of this change would be.
- Players would be under professional instruction from a very young age.
- At the turning point age that we currently see, all players would be given the opportunity to continue to develop under the guidance of professionals.
- More players would stick with the game because they will be able to see a future within it.
- Higher rate of development of the masses driving a much higher level of play at the highest levels in this country.
Now let’s get back to the question of expense. How are we supposed to pay for this system. The most obvious answer is to have the professional teams pick up the cost of the programs within their areas since they will be the ones to most naturally benefit from the increased level of development in their area. This will not work in our current system because the only way that this is a true benefit is if the clubs can gain the rights to each player. Under the current labor laws in the United States players under 18 are not able to be owned by a club. If a team was able to own the rights to all of the players in their area then with each player’s development the club would be able to either promote them to the first team (homegrown contract) or sell them on the world market (like every other club in the world). Without this changing there is no way that the MLS owners would ever float the bill for this proposed structure.
So what is the next option? Corporate sponsorship. We see corporations dump billions, yes with a “b” into sports each year with the hope of turning them into a fan of their product. Most of this focus is put on football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The world market for these sports pales in comparison to soccer. It would be much more beneficial for corporations to be dumping money into youth sports on both the developmental and marketing fronts. We have seen more money being put into soccer more recently as TV deals have made soccer more of a household sport, but we have not seen that money trickle down into the youth market.
Clearly there is no easy answer to this problem. I would love to hear your comments on this and see what proposals you have for how to fund the continued growth and development of soccer in this country.
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