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.