The Wrong Answer to an Old Question

In the United States and Canada, we all dream of a time when our nations are considered elite in the soccer realm alongside many of the European and fellow American countries. Our greatest athletes would face legendary opponents of their time that are compared to Messi, Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, Ronaldo (XL), Ronaldinho, and more. Our teams would develop the embarrassment of riches when selection time grew near, as fans, pundits, and coaches deliberated on the perfect 23. Our programs would continually feed new talent through the pipeline, geared up and prepared to wrestle spots on the senior team. It would be…magnificent.

photo courtesy of soccer.com

photo courtesy of soccer.com

Sadly, our current state is far more sobering. In the United States, our nation is considered lower-middle class alongside many of the other countries that consider scraping out of the group stage of a World Cup an achievement (Canada’s situation is far more dire). Our greatest athletes are currently being compared to European talent in the less prestigious leagues. Our national teams are currently in an embarrassment of scarcity as the same twelve to fourteen aging players are called up, and youngsters are typically called in for friendlies only to never be seen in a USMNT kit again; there are a few that are fortunate enough to keep the stock rotating, but those are usually ones that grew up in an academy system overseas. Our youth programs as of now are feeding players through a bureaucratic system that restricts play between school and academy and limits kids to maybe two dozen games a year. The academies themselves appear more like galaxies caught in a Hubble telescope image: significantly different groupings of mass seemingly scattered about and going in their own directions. It is, in a word, disheveled.

So what can be done? First, the problem needs to be identified. Second, the roadblocks that could stifle progress need to be brought to the surface in order to find a practical solution. And finally, a practical solution needs to be put into place to combat the issues previously discussed in order to achieve the goal of high quality international soccer.

The problems are obvious: the youth system isn’t cranking out the kind of world class talent needed for international competition on a regular basis; they aren’t organized under one umbrella with a system that prepares coaches as well as children to develop similarly across the nation as one cohesive unit; and worst of all, the organizations that develop the youth are funded nearly exclusively by the youth they’re developing – or rather, the parents and guardians of said youth. We all know this. We also know the solution, at least to the final point. Pay-to-play (PtP), the system in place that requires the children to pay for their own advancement, needs to disappear.

The structure also favors those with more political and financial power, regardless of the child's talent...

PtP is the system that, at face value (or the defense that could be used in favor of it), self-selects those determined enough to advance their soccer careers by filtering out those less serious. These kids then play in a more structured league that benefits their development through certified coaches and personnel. But in all reality, PtP restricts those who can’t afford the steep price tag of thousands of dollars a year just to suit up. The structure also favors those with more political and financial power, regardless of the child’s talent, by allowing those privileged few more minutes at the expense of others who could do with the time. Add on the mentality of winning over development, and American progress takes yet another step back…but I digress. The majority of parents that fall below the financial threshold required to register into a PtP academy are limited to which organized leagues their children can play (typically whatever program the child’s school or after-school organization provide).

Now, PtP is nothing new to a parent in the United States. Little League baseball has requested dues for a child to participate for a rather long time. Pop Warner football is no different in that the organization requires registration fees as well. These two examples are the most well-established systems for youth development in their respective sports, and the fee structure works for them. It should also be noted that, with the exception of baseball in certain aspects, these leagues feed into sports that are played solely in North America. There is little or no competition internationally for positions that come up through the system, so the United States can afford to lose out on talent that can’t pay it forward. Yes, baseball has scouting networks all across Central and South America to pull talented children with small town agents in the ghettos, but scouting is expensive, player documents can be shady, and domestic players still come up through a system that cost clubs nothing. Football is similar in that college scouts pilfer talent in the ghettos (the SEC is notorious for this practice), but many of the children that play in the NFL also played in Pop Warner.

Where PtP doesn’t necessarily work is with basketball. There are no nationally reputable leagues for youth development, only scattered organizations working with children regionally. The NBA only recently passed a rule stating that domestic players must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school, which strongly encourages teenagers to enroll in college to continue playing competitively. Therefore, the strongest path to professional success is through the school system. Additionally, by a possible side effect of municipal governmental planning, basketball courts can be much more densely populated in an urban environment compared to the grass/turf fields required for the other sports (excluding hockey obviously, which requires its own specialized playing surfaces). Find an unused lot in the city, pour a slab of concrete down, paint some lines, prop up a pole with a backboard made of plywood with a hoop bolted on, and surround it with a chain link fence…the mayor has just opened a brand new park! Also, given the little maintenance required to keep a basketball court together, the option seems obvious from a financial aspect. Basketball does amazingly for the working class and down simply because it’s far simpler to make accessible. A child can spend day after day with a ball in this “park” honing his or her skills without the need of paying exorbitant amounts to use a facility for the same thing.

Photo courtesy of Grantland.com 

Photo courtesy of Grantland.com 

Internationally, soccer is both basketball and baseball combined. In the majority of countries, soccer is THE sport. If not, it’s one of maybe two or three major sports that have national prestige. Therefore, there is little competition in the sports space to concentrate on which sport to specialize when developing (a child has only so much time to develop, and advancing in multiple sports at a competitive rate is a gift few are able to grasp). Soccer is also played with just a ball, like basketball. Children can hone their footwork in the street, kicking at walls or dribbling between poles and trashcans. Soccer doesn’t necessarily need space like football for a child to develop, nor does it need multiple people like baseball in order to play. Professional clubs in the area also have established systems either governed by their respective federations or simply by the clubs themselves to scout nearby talent in the streets and run them through the club’s own academy. From there, the youth are filtered out until the best are brought up to be played professionally for the team or sold off for a transfer fee that will facilitate the academy for future generations; they are self-sufficient programs.

Soccer in the United States, however, has many types of impedance to overcome. Firstly, soccer is not the only sport; in fact, despite its growth with younger demographics, soccer still remains either the fourth or fifth most popular professional sport overall. Children reach a crossroads when it comes time to specialize in a particular activity. Soccer in the States has not quite reached the glamour and prestige other sports carry. Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard both have been quoted as saying they enjoy working stateside as they can walk freely in town without being bogged down by fans. Soccer also does not pay as well as others either. With the exception of a few multi-million dollar contracts, the money just is not there, let alone endorsements, which are basically popularity contracts with brands. When a child has to choose, these factors tend to come into play. That is, if the choice is allowed to them. Sometimes, a location may not provide a sport because there just aren’t enough kids in the area interested.

For a kid to be noticed in the states, either the parent has to move closer to a reputable academy, or they have to hope that a scout will eventually find their child. 

Secondly, The United States is HUGE! Last year’s Champions League saw Atletico Madrid and Benfica travel to Astana in the group stage. Headlines were drawn that the travel would be a major factor in the matches, especially since UCL matches occur in the middle of the week. North American readers shrugged, as MLS teams handle the same distance on a regular basis (some clubs make the trip nearly half a dozen times a year on top of other trips that are more than half the same distance). Additionally, the nation is comprised of over 330 million people. World Cup winning Germany, for example, is only 80 million strong, and the entire population is squeezed into a land mass roughly twenty five times smaller than the US. Scouting and bringing together children are much easier when the mileage is far less between each other. For a kid to be noticed in the states, either the parent has to move closer to a reputable academy, or they have to hope that a scout will eventually find their child.

photo courtesy of www.ussoccerda.com

photo courtesy of www.ussoccerda.com

Thirdly, jobs are scarce. In soccer, compared to the other big leagues in North America, the argument used by many for academy systems is that the academy can be self-sufficient through selling a single player for a multi-million dollar transfer across the pond that could sustain the program for years to come. The issue that surrounds US soccer is that there is still a stigma for signing US talent. Many clubs still view the United States under the old stereotype that we do not know how to play the sport. In many ways, unfortunately, they aren’t wrong (and I’m labeling them throughout this article). But, even if a talented young player can’t break through professionally in the states, the odds that he (SHE should be fine finding international work, should SHE want it, as the women have quite the winning reputation) will get looks from an international scout is highly unlikely. Most coaches balk at the idea of an American brought up through the American system on their squad until that player finds regular time on the international team. Therefore, chances are low that academies will see high dollar transfers  until the stigma is fully lifted. This is all aside from the main factor that these countries already have a plethora of local talent at their feet; there is little to no need to comb through a landmass the size of all of Europe for one or two kids.

Finally, Success takes time. In the United States, today, time is overvalued. By that, I mean that if success is not earned instantly, then the endeavor is a waste of time and should not even be executed. Additionally, just about every organization is seen as a business first, and its respective mission second. Internationally, clubs tend to lose more money than the revenue coming in, but investors are mostly aware of that fact. The trend is slowly changing, but soccer as of now to some owners is more of an ultra-rich person’s hobby for the sole purpose of acquiring trophies to boast about when around other ultra-elites. Domestically, sports teams are typically of the mentality that the clubs should be able to sustain themselves financially, rather than have investors throw expendable income at them. They’re potential investments. Their existence can be to grow money. Therefore, and investor with eyes on his or her wallet wouldn’t want to handcuff cash in a program that foresees no guaranteed return for at least a handful of years, if ever.

The combination of a widespread landscape, multiple sports competing for attention, and minimal chances of a high dollar return in reasonable time is why the money is still coming from parents.

So, is there a way to fix these issues? It can be difficult to tackle all the problems at once, but there has to be a practical approach that can at least tear down the first brick?

FC Barcelona's famed La masia academy

FC Barcelona's famed La masia academy

Could a single investor turn around an academy system? If one was to step forward and fund an academy, the academy could foster the youth in the area, have high quality equipment and facilities, and will be reasonably maintained at no expense to the parents. The benefits for the children would be that of competent coaching, a possible single-minded direction on development, and a system that would see the most talented players taken to more challenging competitions on a regular basis. The fallback is glaring, however. This one investor has saved one academy if he or she is willing to ride the wave until it produces high quality talent; but that’s still just one area. This investor has opened the doors to merely a handful of children in one tiny area. Unless he or she wants to feed more into the system to branch out or expand, the academy will be capped on the amount of children that can cycle through at any given time. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation sits and waits to see how this effort plays out, and will react accordingly. If it fails, or doesn’t produce timely enough, the idea will likely be abandoned nationwide in favor of what is already established and working well enough.

How about through national non-profits such as the Boys and Girls Club or United Way, systems already put in place for youth to gather for a very low annual fee of maybe $50 or less depending on the program and location? USSF could reach an agreement to help bolster the athletic department in exchange for implanting a soccer program that fits the direction of what they want. The nation within the organization would develop similarly, and talented players across the country would congregate and mesh seamlessly as they were all brought up under the same umbrella. However, while not at the expense of the parent and the organization, the money will have to come from USSF, which doesn’t seem to feed much money into the youth pipeline as it is now. It is reasonable to expect that they wouldn’t in the future either. Additionally, funding for nonprofits typically require grants that the organization is obligated to work towards in order to get approved funding. Given that the government doesn’t give a single dime to the United States Olympic team – established winners – I seriously doubt they would cut a check knowing that a portion of it is exclusively for soccer development.

If revenue is down consistently, the academy is typically the first to suffer. 

That only leaves the professional clubs to fund a system themselves. LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union have opened up academy high schools for that very purpose last year and in 2013 respectively. Multiple teams have affiliate teams or even B teams under the club umbrella. And just about all clubs, including those in lower divisions, have club-specific academies that are now beginning to produce talent after nearly a decade of operation. However, D.C. United Academy remains as the only PtP academy, and will likely stay that way until the new stadium is built and attendance levels increase. The onus is on the club to generate enough revenue to get academies rolling. If revenue is down consistently, the academy is typically the first to suffer. And in sporting terms, these academies may not be beneficial to the national team, as each system is structured specifically for each club, meaning their own styles. Sometimes, styles are difficult to mesh; talents have trouble communicating and connecting – a pressing matter when they come together for two weeks to play a couple matches only to return to their opposing teams again. Realistically though, club academies are the best current option to break the chains that is holding internationally competitive US soccer back.

So are club academies the definitive answer to combat PtP? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. The answers are all the above and more. The upgrade of the entire youth development system requires a concentrated effort on all fronts so the wall can topple down, but it also takes a pragmatic viewpoint rather than a radical one. Progress of this magnitude takes time. Losing talent over the next decade is damn near inevitable, and it should be accepted. We are in a unique situation with a plethora of variables no other country has to worry about, so it’s futile to compare our methods to others. There is an undeniable and universal appeal to a rags-to-riches story, and maybe once that first superstar breaks through the mold, the floodgates will open with children embracing the sport through a hero with which they can relate.

It is important to recognize when a current method isn’t working, and what it will take to fix it.

The United States system of soccer development has been reliant on Pay-to-Play as a crutch for decades, but it will need to find a way forward without it in order to catch up to the world’s elite.