This is part one of a two part series. Part two will be published on Monday, October 16.
There is a belief amongst some that the USMNT loss to Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday was an aberration. The US, according to this line of thinking, is on the right track. The struggles in the Hex were a combination of bad luck, injuries, and poor coaching decisions at the top. We, as a nation, must stay the course, and continue with our essential soccer infrastructure the way it is going forward, and next cycle we will qualify for the World Cup.
If the goal of US Soccer is to make it to the World Cup every four years, then I suppose I agree. We can keep doing what we’re doing. We don’t need to change anything.
But if the goal of US Soccer is to win the men’s World Cup* in our lifetimes, we have to make much more significant changes. As a great nation, I believe we need to aspire to much better than squeeking through the Hex above Honduras. If we can send a man to the moon, we can send eleven men to a World Cup with an eye on winning the whole damn thing. If we want to win the World Cup, there is no doubt that our current soccer system is woefully inadequate.
I know how to fix it. It isn’t easy, or cheap, and it will take a relatively long time. But I believe I have the rough sketches of a plan that can take the United States from also-rans in a group with Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras, to a footballing powerhouse amongst the game’s global elite.
Axiom #1: The size and wealth of the United States are massive strategic advantages that we are not (yet) leveraging.
I’m a soccer nerd, which means that when I’m not watching a game, I’m either reading about the game, listening to a podcast about the game, or writing about the game. In the last 36 hours, dozens of writers and pundits in the soccer world have noted, with frustration or bemusement, that tiny Iceland, population 320,000, qualified for the World Cup, while the United States, population 320,000,000, did not.**
Moreover, the US has the highest GDP in the world. We produce more wealth and goods per annum than six Germanys; than ten Brazils; or than thirty-two Argentinas.
These are advantages of scale that have helped us to become a powerhouse sporting nation across the globe. The US produces a huge number of elite swimmers and runners and other Olympic athletes. We have flooded the world with some of the best basketball players, the best tennis players, the best hockey players and the best baseball players.***
All of those things are the result of our relative size, the popularity of those sports, and our fundamental investment into those sports. The US is good in the Olympics because, for many years, we invested time and money in high school and collegiate athletes in Olympic sports. We are good at basketball because every American neighborhood has a rim and a backboard and at least a half-court-sized strip of asphalt upon which to play. That investment and forethought has yielded medals and athletes of the highest caliber.
Soccer is not as popular as those other sports, and so it is only logical that our country never spent the money or developed the talent to produce a large number of elite footballers. The slow growing popularity of soccer means that that is gradually changing. But we really need a great leap forward. More money - a lot more money - needs to be put into growing the game from the bottom up.
Axiom #2: In order to produce large numbers of elite-level soccer players, we must massively expand the pool of youth soccer players in America.
There are more than 74 million Americans under the age of 18. There are 3 million youth soccer players. That’s not bad! But it can and should be a lot more.
There are many reasons to expand youth soccer, other than winning the World Cup. Creating healthy kids through promoting athletics has lots of ancillary benefits to physical and mental health. It promotes community and generates positive relationships. It supplies young boys and girls with positive role models in both coaches and older athletes they can bond with and learn from.
All that. And also: it will help us win the World Cup.
There was quality on the field for the USMNT during qualifiers. But there wasn’t depth, and there wasn’t enough quality on the field. Gyasi Zardes and Omar Gonzalez and Alejandro Bedoya are good soccer players. But they aren’t great soccer players. Clint Dempsey and Graham Zusi and Tim Howard used to be great soccer players. But they were all past their prime for this qualifying cycle. All of them should have had serious challenges for their positions from younger players, and gotten pushed out as a result. Those younger players needed to be really, really good. Christian Pulisic good. So exceptional, they give the coaching staff no choice but to start them. But those elite younger players weren’t there. Clint Dempsey was on the bench because Christian Pulisic made that decision obvious. But at a bevy of other spots, the US was not going with an elite World football player. They were going with the best guys they had. And those guys weren’t good enough.
That is because our best athletes don’t play soccer.
That is because the pool of kids that we draw from to become athletes is far, far too small.
Our best athletes don’t play soccer because we have not properly invested in local and grassroots youth soccer to a degree that has made the sport pervasive and dominant in America. If we have more youth soccer, at more accessible costs for families, we can vastly expand the player pool at the higher levels.
The time has come to change that.
Axiom #3: For youth soccer to expand the player pool, it must become much more affordable.
The prohibitive costs of youth soccer are seriously impeding the growth of the sport in America. That is happening on at least two different levels. It is moderately too expensive at the younger, entry, levels. And it is tremendously expensive at the middle and upper levels.
Corollary A to Axiom #3: We will get a much larger pool of soccer players if we reduce the entry costs to the youngest levels of youth soccer.
Let’s start with the little guys. Based on my experience as a soccer parent, most club soccer for four to eight year-olds costs between $100 and 300 for an eight-week season, not including shoes, shinguards, and uniforms. And that’s fine, if you are middle or upper class, and you are already motivated to put you kids in soccer.
But there are multiple circumstances in which this relatively modest cost is still too high to effectively grow the game.
First, there’s the story of my neighbor. When I invited her son to join my team - the kid is lightning fast and aggressive as hell, and damn if I don’t still lament that he isn’t on the team - she asked what it cost. I told her it was $180. She responded that i9 sports is only $90. The soccer club we belong to, Skyline, is led by a few trained soccer coaches and follows USSF’s guidelines for soccer development, and attention is given to drills and skills that will advance technical ability. At i9, they run 12 other sports, and soccer training consists of the coach rolling out a ball. But unless soccer clubs can offer good quality soccer training at the same price as these other sports, we’re gonna lose kids. This is a middle class family that isn’t particularly committed to soccer. But we could have had their kid - he might have been the next big thing. He’s playing flag football instead, essentially because it’s cheaper.
Second, we’re losing every kid whose family doesn’t have $180 or even $90 to begin with. Many clubs have scholarships for families in need. It’s not enough.
We are excluding low income families from American club soccer - low income families of all types and ethnic backgrounds and geographic locations. We exclude Latino families from proud soccer cultures. We exclude black families because the physical soccer infrastructure in America’s urban cores is virtually non-existant. We exclude rural whites from soccer because people have decided that many of those areas are already ceded to handegg throwball, or because there isn’t a soccer culture there. We exclude immigrants and refugees with affinity to soccer from their home country, not only because we haven’t made it affordable, but also because we don’t put clubs in their neighborhoods or recruit coaches that speak their language.
If you’ve read David Goldblatt’s exceptional work ‘The Ball is Round’, you know that soccer was carried through footballing missionaries across the globe. We need those missionaries to go into West Virginia and East St. Louis and South Los Angeles and evangelize the people to the beautiful game.
To change this, we need the footballing equivalent of a Marshall Plan, or LBJ’s ‘Great Society’.
There needs to be a sea change in American soccer in which the millions of dollars at the USSF; the millions of dollars belonging to owners of MLS teams; the millions of dollars from massive corporate juggernauts like Nike and Adidas and Gatorade; need to be invested further down, in huge amounts, for the soccer masses.
NPR did a great story about LHIFA, the Latin and Hispanic International Football Association, of New Hampshire. They are committed to making soccer affordable for every player. There need to be more clubs like this, and they need to be funded from the top down. Soccer must become much more democratic and much more for the people.
Lastly, on this point of the entry costs, is another personal story. When I was kid growing up in Los Angeles, we had the 1984 Olympics. There was surprising and wonderful result of those games - they actually made money for LA. As a result, because the organizing committee for the games was a non-profit, they had to figure out what to do with the money. They spent it on youth sports.
As a result, when I eleven years old, I took fencing lessons at the local community center. For free. Fencing wasn’t for me on the long term, but at least I was exposed to it. If we had that level of exposure to soccer all over the United States, especially at the youngest ages for the most nominal of costs, we’d have far more soccer players. Do that with soccer players: expose more kids to the sport, sooner, and for free, and we’ll stop asking the question ‘Where is the American Messi?’ They’ll be on the USMNT. And there will be dozens of them.
Collolary B to Axiom #3: Youth competitive soccer for 9 to 16 year-olds is far too expensive, and it means we will miss out on thousands of kids with the potential to be great.
The structure of youth soccer is such that when your kids hit the age of 8 or 9, they can try out for competitive teams, or stay at a lower ‘recreational’ level. Recreational level kids can always try out again to be competitive - or a coach who sees one can just promote him or her - but those kids can be content to play the sport for the pure joy of game without aspirations to someday turning professional. The cost of rec soccer is in the hundreds of dollars, which is pricey, but understandable. Also, once those kids get to high school, most of them can play on that team for free, if they make the cut.
Most US soccer club further stratify things, either at age 12 or 13, or later, into ‘competitive’ and ‘academy’ level teams. Almost all academy teams, either the ones affiliated with MLS or not, are nearly or entirely free for kids. And that’s great! Well done, guys.
Except that that only applies to a few thousand players nationwide. For the tens of thousands of competitive players at the competitive level below academy, the cost of soccer; the fees to join a team; of traveling to tournaments; of coaching and instruction; and for equipment; run into the thousands and even tens of thousands.
Many families can’t afford it. And so, they quit club soccer. Maybe they keep playing in high school. Maybe they switch sports.
One could argue that this is natural and healthy. The kids who are good at soccer, but not exceptional, move on to something else. However, some of those dropouts might have been late bloomers. We all know the story of how Michael Jordon was cut from his varsity basketball team as a ninth grader. Furthermore, even if there were a diamond in the rough in one of these non-Development Academy (DA) clubs, it is almost impossible that US Soccer would ever discover it. This was explained well in an excellent article by Will Parchman:
All non-DA players younger than 18 play for clubs that are members of either USCS and USYS, the two biggest youth soccer organizations in the U.S. Together, they encompass hundreds of clubs and millions of players from U-6 to U-18. This scale is what makes the prospect of a single technical director benevolently ruling over all this territory with the assistance of just nine full-time scouts so comical.
But that’s the task Klinsmann has assumed. He, along with his scouting staff of nine plus roughly 100 part-timers, is expected to keep tabs on the brightest talents at every stage of youth development in our continent-sized country. Many smaller European nations have many times that number of scouts with far less ground to cover.
Those kids might surface at the NCAA level, but by then, they may have missed some of the critical development and training from very good coaches. It may be too late.
In short, soccer is only marginally affordable when kids are young and it gets prohibitively and insanely expensive in the middle ages, unless your kid is identified as one of a tiny percentage of ‘elites’, and then soccer is free. That doesn’t make sense. The costs need to be much lower and much more balanced.
None of these ideas are new. This whole problem for youth soccer is colloquially referred to as ‘pay to play’ in the soccer world. As I said earlier, Will Parchman wrote a great critique of the system for Howler a year ago. Taylor Twellman did a 60 second analysis of the problems of pay to play in May of this year:
Perhaps the best piece on this was from British paper ‘The Guardian’, entitled ‘It’s only working for the white kids.’ Not only does US Soccer’s structure ensure that the sport is accessible only to the affluent, but it also makes soccer a predominantly white sport.
The costs of soccer generate a tremendous amount of income for both US Soccer and for the thousands of club teams around the US, so rectifying that reality and making soccer more affordable is certainly a serious challenge. But it can and must be done.All of this must change. We need to make soccer available and affordable to everyone in the US. I believe that, until US youth soccer because more logically and fairly distributed, we will never win the World Cup.
Part two drops Monday.
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* Some of you might be thinking “Well, the women have already won three World Cups.” Yes.
A lot of what I will say here about the men don’t apply to the women because the investment and the effort on women’s soccer has already occurred: American women are great at sport, including soccer, because Title IX caused a massive increase in spending on women’s sports. We have been light-years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of effort towards women’s athletics. However, the rest of the world is catching up, and the US Soccer infrastructure for the women still has all of the fundamental flaws of the men’s game. If we don’t change, the US Women’s program will inevitably experience decline.
** It is highly worth noting that China, population 1.4 billion, and India, population 1.3 billion, also did not qualify. To some degree, a lot of what I will say in this article applies to both of those countries too. In China’s case, they’re already doing it.
*** You see it coming. I’m doing the ‘why aren’t our best athletes soccer players?’ argument, AKA ‘why haven’t we produced an American Messi’ argument. If you’ve seen this argument many times before, its only because most of us believe we really can produce a higher caliber of footballer. Bear with me.