The Current State of Youth Soccer in America

cover photo by Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Christopher McCollum appears as a guest writer on Everybody Soccer for his first time. Christopher is a registered USSF player agent and has contributed as a writer and analyst for a number of American sports websites, including Yanks Abroad, American Soccer Now, and Bleacher Report. Perhaps most notably, Christopher worked with SoccerViza in Player and Team Relations, where he coordinated trials, contracts for players, and managed team requests before and during transfer windows. Christopher brings years of off-the-field experience in the sport, spanning continents, professional-to-recreational environments, and all player ages. He can be reached online at @CKMcCollum.

 

October 10, 2017 is a day that can live in infamy for US Soccer, or a day that can be swept under the rug, forgotten, and allowed to eventually repeat itself. As the memory of the US National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup burns at its brightest, the outrage is at a maximum. Even several days later, the hot takes on social media are coming in by the thousands; current and former players are speaking out; fans are livid; journalists and members of the media are expressing their criticism.

There have been a few attempts at early explanations of what went wrong, but truly, there can be no single or even multifaceted answer that easily explains it. It’s a complex issue that’s tied into so many layers of the American soccer system, from the grassroots level all the way up to the financial powerhouse at the top of the pyramid.

 

Who, or What, is to Blame?

The finger of blame can be pointed, justifiably, in several prominent directions, but most of the stereotypical scapegoats at worst can only take part of it. All of these parts add up to a big chunk of the overall problem, but they usually don’t touch upon the biggest single piece of it.

There’s partial blame to be laid at the feet of college soccer for not preparing players for the professional game. There’s partial blame to be laid at the feet of our domestic leagues for not maintaining a consistently high standard of playing environment from top to bottom. There’s partial blame to be laid at the feet of our domestic professional pyramid which limits club and player advancement by operating as closed leagues. There’s partial blame to be laid at the feet of the US scouting system which is understaffed, underpaid, and overworked. There’s partial blame to be laid at the feet of the homogeneous soccer society we live in that quietly enforces a status quo. There’s partial blame to be laid at the feet of an Old Boys Club mentality among some decision makers in agencies, teams, and leagues, who decide what makes an attractive professional prospect.

There’s a lot of blame to be laid at the feet of the corporatocracy that soccer in the United States has evolved into over the past generation, and the lack of action from the USSF to subsidize youth soccer costs allows this corporatocracy to grow in scope and influence.

The increasingly money-driven approach that businesses approach soccer with shows itself in almost every arena of the game around the world, as it does in most other sports as well, but there are distinct areas in the United States where it plays a direct role on what our National Team has looked like, currently looks like, and will look like, which differs from other comparably successful setups.

There’s an age old arguing point that the pay-to-play system is broken and drives players away from the game by limiting access to families who can afford the increasingly astronomical cost to register their sons and daughters for a season of soccer. This is true, despite Sunil Gulati saying on a recent conference call with members of the press that it is not exclusive to the United States, but these arguments rarely get into “why” the system works this way. The answer is simple on its face: Youth soccer in America is a license to print money; It pulls on the heartstrings of parents with the suggestion that comes precariously close to a promise that if their kids play in certain clubs or under certain coaches or in certain leagues, there is a college scholarship in reach.

This reinforcement of the college dream that coaches and club administrators sell to parents grows weaker every year, because it doesn’t take into account one of the fastest growing niche industries in the soccer market: International college recruitment, which brings in foreign academy or even ex-professional players on scholarships. In the 2016 season, 36% of Top Drawer Soccer’s Division I Conference Best XI rankings were imported players. This is good for the programs and good for professional soccer in America. Unfortunately, it adds a very difficult road block to an already difficult path for the typical American youth player to earn a scholarship to university, and is generally glossed over when convincing parents to open their checkbooks.

 

The Great Temptation

The temptation of free college education in a world where the cost of tuition is rising faster than average income is almost impossible to resist for many parents, who become happy (or at least willing) to gamble on six to eight years of $4,000 annual registration fees in order to not spend $40,000-$100,000 over four years of university costs down the road. Once it was figured out that middle to upper class parents will spare no expense to find opportunities for their kids, high price youth academies and companies began springing up all around the country.

It’s gotten to the point where coaching youth soccer in America can be one of the most lucrative jobs a person without specialized formal education can hold. With three teams of players as young as U10, a coach can easily make $45,000 per year off of them for what amounts to part time work. That number can rise to $60,000 if the coach does their schedule carefully and adds a fourth team. This is more than most professional coaches in Portugal get paid, according to AEL Limassol head coach Bruno Baltazar.

“In Portugal it is a very poor paying job to coach youth football,” Baltazar said in a recent on-record conversation, “maybe 150 or 200 euros per month. It’s done because of passion for the game. Even the professional coaches in the first division, except for Benfica, Porto, Sporting Lisbon, maybe Braga, will usually only make 40,000, maybe 50,000 per year. Less in the smaller teams, and the youth coaches make way less.”

Youth soccer in America is a license to print money; It pulls on the heartstrings of parents with the suggestion that comes precariously close to a promise that if their kids play in certain clubs or under certain coaches or in certain leagues, there is a college scholarship in reach

The same can be said for England, where players in small amateur clubs outside of the professional league system will pay small fees in the neighborhood of $8/week, which covers basic fees including kits, referees, and other necessities, but not coaching. The coaching there is for the love of the game. Going to a higher level in the community, but still outside of the professional academy system, this is where the English Football Foundation, funded by the FA, Premier League, and English government, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into subsidizing costs for clubs. This keeps player registration fees nearly non-existent while bringing paid coaches into the fold with part time wages and allowing the players greater access to development and education within the game.

In Mexico, according to Queretaro FC scouting guru Mauricio Pedroza in another recent on-record conversation, players in professional youth academy setups do not pay. In the community programs there are small monthly fees that can be as high as $50 for a player depending on the location, quality of facilities and coaching, but most of the time outside of the major cities, it’s as low as $10 per month. This is done, as in England, through the coaches’ love for the game and willingness to volunteer their time and resources to help their community grow.

Even in Iceland, the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, and without a ton of financial assistance available from a large federation or large, generous tax-base, it only costs roughly $850 per year to play with one of the elite academies, such as Breidablik. This club, with one of the best development systems in Iceland, produced (or helped to produce) four players on the team that just qualified for the World Cup, including Gylfi Sigurdsson and Alfred Finnbogason, and five more who have been used this year (and sidenote for trivia buffs, Aron Johannsson for a short spell). This figure changes by age as well, so that the youngest players in the academy only pay about $140 per year. These small fees help to cover some very basic necessities such as maintenance and transportation costs, but the low prices are helped by the close involvement of clubs’ professional players having active involvement in youth coaching. For many of the younger players on the first team rosters, a stipulation in their contracts is that they dedicate a small number of hours each week to coaching at the youth academy.

The Icelandic federation’s investment into its youth over the past 15 years has paid dividends as evidenced by last year’s Euro run, and this year’s qualification for the World Cup. Even though the federation has limited resources, they devote what they can to improving the country’s sporting future. To bolster this investment, the individual clubs work with their sponsors, and use compensation awarded from successfully exported players to put back into their youth academies. This has created a machine in Reykjavik and Akureyri that sees several players a year exported into the Netherlands, England, and Denmark, with each one capable of bringing back as much as $150,000 straight away, and sell-on clauses that will keep players producing even more money for their childhood clubs as their careers progress.

 

But Then There’s Youth Soccer in America

This is all in contrast to American registration fees that run up to several thousand dollars per year even in community club programs, and is largely because of the increased cost of coaching wages which come with the assumption that higher paid means higher quality. This unfortunately feeds into another growing niche market in the United States which is the import of youth coaches from Great Britain; These same coaches doing the job for free in the small charity programs in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Manchester are brought over by companies like UK Elite who pitch their expert European services to communities bereft of knowledgeable soccer leaders, and procure lucrative contracts that pay as much as $110 per man hour for coaching kids as young as the U6 level. Keep the player:coach ratio at 10:1 for a four-day-a-week, two-hour, 60-player after school U6-U10 program, and it’s easy to see why registration fees cost as much as they do. It’s not about kit costs, it’s not about field rental, it’s not about referee fees, it’s not about insurance; The biggest financial hit to a club is the cost of coaching, and it’s not a field where you’re guaranteed to get what you pay for.

This is a major part of the underlying cause for why so many potential players, especially from minority backgrounds, are excluded from even basic community programs, let alone from the more difficult to navigate academy programs. Regardless of the difficulty of access though, there are still plenty of talented players whose parents can afford to pay the registration fees required to get their kids into programs. The United States has an estimated 30-million soccer players at all levels, and over 4-million of them are registered youth players. The mounting problem that these players then face is in the developmental side, and that is where so much is lacking, and where the evidence mounts up against the highest paid youth coaching industry in the world.

Not only are entire communities being deprived of the opportunity to play in “scouted” leagues, but those who do have access are finding it more and more difficult to find coaching quality that lives up to the expectations set forth in a club’s charter. The US Soccer coaching accreditation system is simply not an accurate gauge of a coach’s competence in the field, same as a student’s grade in school has very little applicability in the real world. Seasons are long, player personalities are diverse, and just because someone passed a test that may or may not have involved a bit of field work, doesn’t mean that they can take a team and progress with them full time.

How many USSF-produced coaches have gone on to make an international impact? The answer: Not many. We can’t generalize and say that they simply aren’t good enough - there’s certainly a case to be made for a number of coaches, such as Caleb Porter, Jason Kreis, Jesse Marsch, who are among a younger generation of coaches that will produce their own “family trees” that spread into other parts of the game. But beyond some MLS success, we’re hard pressed to find an impact beyond Bruce Arena’s 2002 World Cup campaign. And we just saw firsthand how little Arena has evolved from 2002 to 2017.

Again, it’s not to state that the US soccer coaching pool is a dumpster fire. There are a lot of good coaches working in the youth system in the United States, hailing from all over the world. Not all of them get paid high wages. Many do it for the satisfaction of being involved in the game they love. These hardworking, dedicated coaches are valuable, and worth every penny that they’re paid, or in some cases worth way more than they’re paid. These elite coaches come from every nationality and every background, but it’s naive to think that the 461 boy’s USSDA teams and the 100,000 odd other teams around the country can have access to them all. There are thousands upon thousands of parent volunteers who spend their time on their kids’ and community’s teams because of their own unique love and passion, but like with any industry where there is profit to be found, there are so many bad actors making their way into the field, claiming their piece of the pie. And for the American youth soccer pie, there are huge pieces of it available to someone clever enough to make their claim.

At the moment, there’s no accountability for clubs taking piles of money from parents believing that their kids will have a shot at college, short of bad customer reviews on Facebook. Add the Federation’s apparently adamant stance against subsidizing youth soccer costs in order to correct the market, and there is no end in sight for increased fees, under-qualified and overpaid coaches, and mediocre performances from the National Team which these programs collectively end up feeding into.

 Getty Images

Getty Images

This brings up a brief aside regarding solidarity payments and training compensation fees that MLS, backed by the Federation, will not pay out to American youth academies upon signing graduates to professional contracts. And why should they? Training compensation is meant to compensate a youth club for the annual costs that go into producing a professional quality player, multiplied by the number of years the player was with that club. It’s the payoff for a club’s investment in their players.

Some academies, such as Crossfire Premier, are involved in litigation to receive compensation for their products. In Crossfire’s case, it’s DeAndre Yedlin. If anyone has a legitimate claim to the FIFA mandated compensation models, it would be Crossfire, since they provide expense-paid DA soccer for their upper age groups, including travel costs. But not a lot of other clubs do this, and even if they do, that means raising the prices on the younger and non-elite programs they run in order to pay the expenses of the U18 elite teams. So what does this do? It once again prices out potential players when they need to be identified the most.

If the player is paying for the privilege of being part of that club though, why, indeed, should the club receive payment on top of what the parents already provided? The compensation rates based on academy categories (1 being the highest compensated per year of development, through 4 being the lowest) provided by FIFA is laughable at best, and when it comes to the United States, completely irrelevant. It’s a nasty circle of life when clubs don’t deserve training compensation because they’re not investing in players, but those clubs can’t invest in players because the Federation hasn’t provided an instrument for clubs to be rewarded with.

Training compensation fees would work for a club that steadily produces professional players. The trouble is, there’s not enough money available through compensation to offset the massive expenses that clubs run up unless they regularly produce a pro player from their U18 team every year. These costs need to be brought down in order for training compensation to make a noticeable impact (if it’s ever introduced in America at all).

In this regard, it’s the training compensation schedule that FIFA dictates that will block a U.S. club from being able to go free-to-play solely from revenues generated from graduates who go pro. The top U.S. academies are labeled Category 1 by FIFA, and are technically able to receive money for each year a player was with the club from age 12-18. It’s only a small value from age 12-15, but goes up to $30,000 per year from age 16-18. Compare that to Category 1 academies in Europe, which is about $106,000 per year from 16-18. It’s a lot easier to fund an academy when one prospect pays off every two years, compared to needing one or two prospects each year.

 

But Wait, There May Be a Solution

While it’s naive to think that the millions of youth players in the United States can have access to quality coaching when there are so few quality coaches, it’s also naive to think that the Federation can adequately subsidize so many programs for so many players in order to reduce the financial burden on families and to force a degree of accountability on coaches. Even with the massive amount of money that comes into the USSF every year, there’s simply not enough of it to make soccer a free-to-play sport. There may not even be enough money to adequately subsidize the DA clubs in order to provide low cost or free access to players. This is one of the inherent curses that the sport has in the U.S.; The size of the player pool guarantees that there are Christian Pulisic’s out there, but it’s also too big to adequately develop without excluding players due to their financial means. Subsidizing youth soccer could very well bankrupt the Federation.

So what’s the solution? If we need to hold youth coaches accountable in order to justify their wages, then the Federation needs to be involved in the payment of those wages through investment and subsidies. But there’s too many players, too many teams, for the Federation to invest in and subsidize. Picking and choosing which programs to receive money from the Federation in order to do away with player registration fees opens a fertile breeding ground for internal politics and favoritism which would surely doom talented players just as much as excessive costs do today. There simply isn’t an easy solution to the problem.

It’s possible that the only solution is to make coaches and clubs accountable to their parents, and this wouldn’t be through a voting system or any kind of regulatory tool. It would take capturing the best elements of the free market and allowing them to run their course; Namely, customer dissatisfaction would ultimately doom coaches and clubs.

There’s a potential fatal flaw in that solution though, and it’s the lack of a distinct soccer culture in the United States. Despite their love for their kids’ game, so many of the soccer parents in this country don’t hold a vast degree of technical or tactical knowledge of the game in order to have an idea for what player development should look like. It’s not as easy as checking report cards to see if your kid has been taught his times tables yet. Because of this, it’s always going to be difficult for parents to fact check a coach, and it will still be possible for coaches and clubs to exploit the knowledge gap.

 

All Hope Is Not Lost

While there’s a definite lack of a soccer culture in the United States, there doesn’t need to be one in order to provide an accountability system. The framework is already there, though the parents may not know it yet. Youth soccer representatives hold a very strong voting bloc in the USSF, and they could reasonably use that influence to form, or force the Federation to form, committees that oversee such accountability. What parents need to protect themselves and to give them the strength to hold coaches and clubs accountable is a representative force within the Federation. That force exists, it just hasn’t been engaged yet. As soon as it is, we can start putting things in order and rein in the corporatocracy that businesses have exploited parents’ dreams in order to build.

Though it’s not a grand solution to figuring out the pay-to-play system, the prospect of Federation censure that could drive away their customer base may be enough for many coaches, clubs, and companies to tighten up their coaching standards, and maybe even lower prices. And that’s a step in the right direction to getting the pay-to-play model under control, make the game more accessible, and eventually help the National Team compete for a World Cup.

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