Massive waste of talent because of pay-to-play

This is probably one of the most important blog posts I’ve written, triggered by an excellent article in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago: “It’s only working for the white kids: American soccer’s diversity problem.”

Here’s a quote from that article to summarize its key point:

“Well-to-do families spend thousands of dollars a year on soccer clubs that propel their children to the sport’s highest levels, while thousands of gifted athletes in mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods get left behind. Soccer is the world’s great democratic game, whose best stars have come from the world’s slums, ghettos and favelas. And yet in the US the path to the top is often determined by how many zeroes a parent can write in their checkbook.”

We probably all agree that soccer in our country is expensive. I posted on this topic a couple of weeks ago – click here to read about the cost of competitive youth soccer.

And the higher the quality of coaching and the higher ranked a team is, the higher the cost, partly because of considerable in-state and then out-of-state travel. Talk to someone who’s son or daughter plays on one of the Development Academy or ECNL teams to learn more. But even the second and third teams at the bigger clubs are expensive and travel quite a bit.

To be very clear, I am not saying that soccer clubs are doing anything ‘wrong’ in terms of the fees they charge. And some try to make needs-based scholarships available to talented players and organize fundraisers.

It’s simple – the bills have to be paid by someone and in our private market called ‘youth soccer’ it’s the parents, of course. And there are also many indirect cost to consider beyond just the direct cost such as club fees. To quote from the article:

“Scholarships often cover the cost of the league but little else. They don’t provide transportation for the player whose parents might work during practice, or don’t have enough money for gas to drive to games. Some families don’t have email and can’t get the club announcements. Resentment builds.

“The parents will say to scholarship kids – and I have seen this countless times – ‘Why did you miss the game on Saturday? We are paying for you to be here,’” Lusson says. “What does a kid say to that? Or what happens if they are late to practice? Or who is going to pay for them to travel to that tournament in San Diego? That’s like the moon to some of these kids. We have kids here in the East Bay who have never seen the beach.”

They drop out and drift away and we lose them and that’s terrible because they were really, really talented.”

The other key point this article makes is that some of the best soccer is actually played in the ‘ligas Latinos’. Click here for an article I came across describing one of those ligas.

I have refereed countless games across all age groups and levels, and see the difference between teams from Latino neighborhoods across NorCal and teams from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods.

These relatively well-off teams tend to be more disciplined and ‘solid’ throughout, and often also consistently fitter, but seem to lack that extra level of soccer understanding, technical skill, and creativity that many of the Latino teams have.

As a rule of thumb I see better individual talent on Latino teams, often much better.

It’s a level of play you only reach if you grow up playing street soccer pretty much every day at school and in your neighborhood, and are surrounded by a futbol culture that encourages skills and creativity, and draws you into watching international soccer games on a daily/weekly basis.

You can’t get this from just going to structured team practices three times a week that the kids from middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods typically pay their club fees for.

They tend not to have time for more soccer anyway – there are other extracurricular activities that help them grow into ‘well-balanced individuals’ and strengthen their college applications.

Throw in extra tutoring to do well in school and a busy social life too, of course. Most don’t even have time nor interest to watch top international games on a weekly basis.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with these priorities, of course. It’s a smart approach for these kids given that practically none of them are aiming to turn pro, but it should be clear to everyone that these youngsters can never reach the elite level.

Yet our player development system is supporting them as though they will and ignores those that actually have a realistic chance to join the elite.

And then we also have the college system that distorts the discovery and development of true top talent. The well-to-do teams travel to college showcases and have the grades to get into college, especially the top college programs (with the better facilities and coaches typically, because those pay best).

For many (and probably all top) clubs the college placement rate is a key selling point so their programming is at least partially influenced by what colleges are looking for.

And I don’t blame the clubs for that. They are simply operating within the system. Why should coaches that dedicate their professional lives to the game not maximize their financial return, like you and me?

Being a martyr for a cause is easy to say, but impossible to do when you have to make a living, support a family, and save for retirement. And that coach will be remembered by very few for ‘fighting the good fight’.

Truly talented underprivileged kids, that are never seen at these college ‘showcases’ because they simply can’t ‘pay to play’ nor have the grades because they had to help support their families, simply vanish.

And that’s a massive loss for our country, not just in terms of becoming World Cup contenders at some point, but also in terms of making our MLS games more entertaining.

Entertainment is the lifeblood of soccer (and any sport). The better the entertainment, which is a direct result of talented players, the more money will flow into soccer. It’s a virtuous cycle.

In my view, the USA game against Colombia (Fifa Rank #4) in the Copa America two weeks ago made all this painfully visible. It’s not so much the fact that we lost, but rather how we played.

Yes, we won the next three games against Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador, mostly because we simply played with more heart and energy and against much lower ranked teams than Columbia, but there simply is no player or coach in our country who can credibly compete in the top 10 internationally. Period. We rank 29th, by the way.

Watch the USA v Columbia game again and then the Argentina v Chile game. And finally watch the 0:4 semifinal loss against an Argentinian side that was playing at only about 50-75% of what they are capable of.

Quoting an analyst (with some edits for clarity and brevity), “we had just 32 percent of possession, our midfield lost the ball quickly, we had zero shots (not zero shots on goals – zero shots total), and we were out-played in every way possible. It’s not so much that the U.S. got beaten as it was that they weren’t even in the game.”

We battled and never gave up, but the difference in class along pretty much any soccer dimension, individual and team, was obvious.

That’s the chasm we need to cross and we won’t be successful until we’ve figured out how to discover and then nurture truly our best and most passionate futbol talent wherever it might be.

There is no easy solution to this pay-to-play problem, but I strongly suspect that the only feasible way to truly discover and develop our best soccer talent is to have at least some type of large central funding source with aligned incentives that can support a broad scouting net and then pay for a very large number of youngsters’ development.

U.S. Soccer will have to own this – government funding won’t be available for this. Many other countries, including soccer powerhouses such as Germany and Spain, provide taxpayer funded government support (sometimes a lot and even the entire cost), but we don’t operate like that here.

In addition, clubs that develop talent need to be compensated by the pro clubs for that development. Right now the bigger clubs, especially those with USDA and ECNL status simply suck up the talent that was developed by smaller clubs.

And then the MLS clubs in turn mop up the top talent without owing one of the lesser clubs anything for their player development work.

Here’s an article that describes that well. This article also describes how tough it is to make a decent living running most youth soccer clubs.

And once you have a system in place to identify the best talent how do you then best develop them? Insert them into the existing youth clubs (with external funding support) or maybe have a centrally organized system of development through US Soccer?

It’s relatively easy once you’ve identified those that are truly elite – they can join one of the fully paid USDA teams at one of our MLS clubs, but there’s the millions of 5 to 12 year old underprivileged kids that need to be nurtured. Or at least a good portion of them.

It’s the only way to identify the diamonds in the rough and an important part of the changes we need to eventually be able to help fulfill the enormous potential of this massive, sports-obsessed, and wealthy country of ours. We have no excuse!

By the way, click here if you’re interested in some wealth distribution data. This Forbes article is just one source – there are many and they all tell the same story.

P.S.: And then we have to make sure that creative talent isn’t suffocated by shallow, risk-averse coaching that suppresses this creativity, but that’s another topic for another day. If you’re interested, I’ve shared my views on this many times including here, here, and here.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

12 thoughts on “Massive waste of talent because of pay-to-play

  1. Thanks for writing this! I work at the Jamestown Community Center in San Francisco – we sponsor a total of 22 teams – almost all Latino and low income. Our focus is on youth development, rather than soccer, but in our experience, the soccer skills stick when family, community and positive youth development are the foundation. It is very, very difficult to sustain the business end of this. Our programs are all free of very low cost, but the league entrance fees, the tournaments, the travel are all so expensive and it is hard to compete with those teams that have more resources. Because our kids are recognized as having talent, they get recruited by other teams, given scholarships, and then they play on the other side of town with organizations who mean well but do not have the same emphasis on community, culture and family. The system reflects the disparities in our society. Thanks for calling attention to it.

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    • Thank you very much for sharing your experiences, Myrna. The problem is that these ‘scholarships’ aren’t always what they appear to be. They rarely cover all the extra cost associated with longer commutes to practices and games etc. It’s just not sustainable and doesn’t reach a wide enough population of underprivileged yet talented kids. Please keep up the good work!

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  2. Totally agree that we were dominated and embarrassed vs Argentina. It make the idea that “we will be there in 10 years” as i have heard some say, just laughable.

    You point to the obviously valid aspect of the pay-to-play system as missing a large swath of less well-off kids. No disagreement there. But i think there is a much bigger issue at work, and that is the lack of “development systems” at virtually every PTP Club, starting at U8 and going all the way through U18.

    Take a look at any club taking $2k or more (much more) from parents to train their kids. They don’t bother to educate the parents on the realities of soccer at the beginning, at U8, when their kid barely knows what a soccer ball is. So, parents want to win, or theyll go elsewhere. So, what happens – coaches train kids, and teams, to win. And we end up with sub-standard players, even at the very top of our leagues.

    Now, by “educate the parents” i mean telling them, and getting them to buy into, the following. And this means following thru with training and development that actually supports what you are telling them. in other words, you cant tell them all this and then coach teams to win, with the biggest, best players playing forward and playing all the time.
    1. If you start at U8 and go to U18, you will “invest” about $30,000 in todays $s. Far more if you play at top clubs and in top leagues and start traveling.
    2. Your kid has almost no chance of making it, even to Div 1 college soccer – 9% of HS players make it to college and 1.5% make it to Div 1 colleges.
    3. If they make it to Div 1 soccer, their scholarship will cover only about 34% of their college costs. At Div 1 your scholarship will on average be worth $15k a year, or $60k for the 4 years. So, given that you have invested $30k (and probably more like $45k), you’re only $15k ahead – if you’re the 1.5% of HS players that make it to Div1! Otherwise your scholarship i s worth far less, and you’re well behind.
    4. Even if they do “make it”, they will only make it to MLS, where the median (not mean) salary is $75k a year and the average career is 2.5 years long.

    What’s the point of getting parents to understand and buy into this? They’ll also buy into “developmental” soccer, instead of “winning” soccer, and allow clubs, and DOcs, and coaches the freedom to actually develop players (and people) with a “development system”, vs win games. And as a result of that the better players will actually end up being far more “developed” by the time they hit U14 than if they had played in a “winning” club.

    Until this happens, US soccer will languish in the global cellar…as i have zero hope that MLS clubs will invest in our youth to get them where they need to be.

    Andrew

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    • Very much appreciate the data, Andrew. Makes sense to me.

      Unfortunately, too many elements of our system are misaligned with a true player development objective and it takes brave clubs and coaches to pursue a different path.

      One thing I would say though is that most clubs and coaches aren’t necessarily to blame for this. They have to make a living within the system.

      And the system includes too many parents that have a limited understanding of the game and how to play it well. These parents make things difficult for clubs and coaches, voting with their wallets if their team isn’t winning.

      Unfortunately, too many of our ‘experts’ in our country also don’t understand the game deeply enough. So parents read bad ‘insights’.

      Overall, there is much too little education.

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      • I like the idea of Training Camp for Parents, where coaches, referees and U16 parents who have been through the process can advise newbie parents on game behavior, what the referees are for, where to sit, how to socialize, etc etc. If the clubs don’t want to do it, the leagues should sponsor it.

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  3. Good stuff here. There does seem to be a few changes required in youth soccer in order for club soccer to become a self-sustaining model. I read the Parchman article, which mentions how the virtuous cycle of training compensation would help keep afloat the club system. Right now it appears US Soccer is opposed to any changes that would divert any of this training compensation money to non-MLS clubs, despite the entire world operating this way (outside of maybe north korea). The question is, why? Why must MLS get ALL the money? They have a monopoly as it is. They are the top tier of soccer in the US. So would it be so bad to share some of the spoils in order to defray the costs, & improve youth soccer? My only conclusion is that MLS/Gulati/Garber doesn’t care about youth soccer–only the MLS single entity. Instead of looking at american kids as the lifeblood of soccer in america, MLS/Gulati/Garber are looking to immigrant professionals who can make the league better now. MLS/Gulati/Garber see the college draft as a dying commodity, and instead of turning to improve our youth system with training compensation–the bigger pie but with less control–they’re going with the smaller pie but more control over the process. This is a power grab. So US Soccer is happy for you to buy that USMNT jersey–just don’t expect real progress until our courts are presented with a case that will force training compensation norms on MLS/Gulati/Garber. Maybe they know this is only a matter of time, but while they think this is good business, I think it’s un-american. Like a lot of monopolies/oligopolies, it’s good for the few at the expense of the many. This is a 1% problem that will not end well for them once the 99% figure in which direction they should point their pens.

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    • Very much agree with you. As a rule of thumb, absent a powerful independent entity, the profit motive always leads to short- to medium-term focus on increasing those profits while reducing risk as much as possible.

      I’m going to prefer the short-term boost I get from signing an aging brand-name player from Europe than the ten- to twenty-year boost from developing youth players.

      This is why we need a strong and independent USSF that can collect and deploy centralized funds without a profit motive. The ROI needs to be measured, of course, but the ‘return’ metric isn’t profits. It’s the competitiveness of our USMNT.

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