The pitfalls of chasing the elite player dream

 

Disgraceful – time to cut the BS!

This is my first post in many months – I’ve simply been too busy at work and with family. But Tuesday night’s US MNT elimination from the World Cup jolted me into posting again.

I have not felt this angry in a while. This is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment.

Let me be very blunt: what a joke of a team and coaches. USSF lacks leadership that understands this beautiful game deeply enough. The quality of soccer in the MLS is poor and the incentives in that league are not aligned with developing players to compete internationally. And don’t get me started on college soccer.

Time to stop the BS and start with a complete and deep revamp of how we teach, play, and organize the beautiful game here.

We need to hold our coaches more accountable and support only those that truly understand the game and how to teach it. This also means that we as parents and the leaders of our youth clubs educate ourselves about what it means to learn and play futbol properly.

In contrast to pretty much all soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and Germany and Spain, we’re paying our coaches and clubs a lot of money, right? So if we have a pay-to-play model here let’s at least demand a service that can justify these cost.

This applies to all levels of coaching – national, pro, college, and youth. And it applies to US Soccer leadership as well as us parents.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know that this doesn’t come as too big a surprise to me, but I still feel angry about it.

We have inmates running the asylum and it needs to stop.

In contrast, tiny Iceland (pop 335,000) qualified for the World Cup yesterday in first place (!) in its European (!) qualifying group. And remember their recent remarkable European Championship performance?

That’s a country only about one-third the population of the City of San Jose here in NorCal.

Let’s do that again: 335 thousand people with limited resources on an icy island in the Atlantic ocean near Europe perform better than 335 million people living in the wealthiest country in the world with unbelievable facilities and resources and brainpower and a deep and pervasive tradition of sports.

When will there be enough evidence to finally trigger deep changes in how we train and play this beautiful game in our country? Have we finally reached a tipping point?

I’ll leave you with these three clips to reflect on:

#ussoccer #soccer #futbol #usmnt #mls #ussf

Comparing Girls’ Development Academy with ECNL and High School Soccer

The launch of U.S. Soccer’s Girls’ Development Academy (GDA) this August is probably the single most discussed topic in girls’ soccer currently.

The GDA is supposed to mirror the successful Boys’ Development Academy, which was launched in 2007, and is expected to become the new home for our elite female soccer players, effectively replacing the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which will now become a league for the second tier teams.

Many clubs, coaches, and parents are wondering why there’s a need for a GDA when ECNL has been providing a regional and national league system for our best girls since 2009.

What makes this more contentious is the ‘no high school soccer’ rule for girls in the GDA. This rule states that GDA players cannot play high school soccer while also training and playing with the GDA primarily because of overuse health concerns and poor quality of coaching. They can, however, opt to take a three-month break from the GDA to play high school soccer and then return once the high school soccer season is over.

To help explain the reasons for the GDA, April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Technical Director, gave an interview to SoccerAmerica last November. I strongly encourage you to read it. April’s comments resonate strongly with me.

First, we haven’t emphasized technical skills enough in our country. Raw athleticism, speed, size, and aggression have dominated player selection for too long. This works well especially at younger ages if ‘winning’ and ‘rankings’ are important.

For example, U12 or U14 girls that are physically more mature and have the basics down will typically beat girls that are technically more proficient but are physically less developed at the same age. The club’s and coach’s win-percentage and team ranking will be higher, which in turn attracts more paying families.

But those same ‘winning’ girls will struggle eventually as their technically superior smaller peers mature physically too over time. And many of those ‘winning’ physically mature U12 or U14 girls overshoot as they fully mature into young women. I have seen many ‘winning’ 12, 13, and 14 year old girls turn into slow and ineffective players at age 15 and 16.

At the international level a focus on physical attributes won’t be sufficient going forward given the big improvements in the development of female soccer players in countries like Japan, France, Spain, and England.

For societal reasons and because of the deeply embedded male soccer culture in leading soccer nations, female players only recently started playing soccer in larger numbers there. And those countries are now bringing their deep expertise in player development from the men’s side to their female players.

This is very apparent when watching the most recent U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups. Japan and France in particular played the most sophisticated and complete soccer, and the gap between them and us in those age groups was significant.

“When people say the gap is closing, I would say the gap has closed and we’re falling behind in these areas.”  – April Heinrichs in NYT interview, June 2015

Going forward, the ideal female player combines soccer-specific athletic attributes with excellent technical skills and superior soccer IQ. And developing these kinds of players starts when they are very young and needs to continue throughout their youth soccer years.

This will also increase the quality of play domestically and the entertainment value, which in turn should lead to a larger viewership and, over time, more financial resources for women’s soccer.

So with this background in mind, here’s how April described the key differences for each of the girls’ soccer models:

GDA = Primarily Player Development – no financial incentives, just longer-term player development owned and organized by our national soccer federation. Strong centralized control over all aspects, including coaching standards, curriculum, training and game schedule.

ECNL = Primarily Business – a league for our pay-to-play clubs to compete against each other. Need to ‘win’ to keep and attract paying parents with talented girls. Clubs and coaches retain, for all practical intents and purposes, full independence.

High School Soccer = Primarily Social – girls enjoy playing with school friends for their school and get local peer group recognition. Focus is on ‘winning’ with the available pool of players at the school, not player development. Risk of injury is high.

I tried to capture the differences between three models at the national level in the following chart:

gdaecnlhighschoolnationwide

I support the introduction of the GDA because it promises to be the best *player development* environment for our elite girls, assuming the coaching quality and player development curriculum is truly world-class. And there will still be the ECNL for girls that either don’t make it into the GDA or prefer to play on ECNL teams.

There will be some regional differences initially – for example, here in NorCal of the big girls’ clubs only De Anza Force has committed to the GDA. Other clubs like Mustang and San Juan have decided to stay with ECNL for now, but that is likely to change if their best girls start to try out at GDA clubs once the dust has settled. In other regions, such as SoCal, ~80% of the top clubs have committed to the GDA as of February 2017.

So the chart for NorCal looks something like this:

gdaecnlhighschoolnorcal

In NorCal the best players and coaches will initially still be in the ECNL simply because all of the ECNL clubs and their players aren’t expected to switch to the GDA. However, as the GDA becomes established nationwide and much of the college recruiting and national team scouting aligns with that, more top female players in NorCal will switch to GDA clubs, which will force the ECNL clubs to apply for GDA membership too.

There are probably going to be more changes as we get closer to the summer and there are probably going to be some teething problems, but odds are high that the GDA will be successful. U.S. Soccer will put its full weight behind it. And the GDA will serve our most elite girls well because the focus promises to be primarily on ‘development’ not ‘winning’.

girls-da-map

The American Soccer Culture Problem (3Four3)

Some of you might be familiar with the Kleiban brothers already. Brian is a coach at LA Galaxy’s youth academy and Gary writes about soccer in our country through their blog 3Four3.

They have a reputation for, shall we say, ‘rocking the boat’ and their most recent post definitely hits hard. You might not agree with everything they say below, but their views are worth reading if you’re interested in the broader debate about coaching quality and player development in our country.

I wanted to re-blog their post, but couldn’t figure out how to do that, probably because we’re using different blogging platforms. So I decided to simply paste their post here.

To be clear, full credit for all of the content below goes to Gary @3Four3.

I suggest you first watch this clip and then continue reading Gary’s comments.

First, I want to applaud both Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock for bringing an important truth about the state of American soccer to the masses. It speaks volumes that these sports generalists call it like it is, while entrenched American soccer media doesn’t.

American soccer media, hence its consumers, coddles our players.

You don’t hear much public criticism for a variety of reasons

1) Incumbent American soccer media has been practically curated by the establishment. An establishment that naturally doesn’t want to be critically examined, particularly not at the foundational level. Hence, it neuters its media. How does it accomplish this? Well, it  holds a monopoly over the ecosystem. Anyone who doesn’t align with its foundational narrative, its founding culture, is in danger of losing access.

2) Incumbent culture has a recreational mentality – a property that is the antithesis of the hardcore culture the rest of the world has. The soccer structure we live in has been built of, by, and for a casual soccer demographic. It extends from youth all the way to the pro level being addressed here.

When something is casual, there are no stakes. When there are no stakes, nobody gets too heated over things.

After all, “it’s just a game“. That phrase, right there, is the (convenient) foundation upon which American soccer has been built. It’s no wonder we’re mediocre, anybody with that kind of mentality will not achieve excellence.

Contrast that with the rest of the world, where a portion of people’s very identity and self esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams.

Now, before you robotically react and think that’s sad, reserve judgement until you understand that clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag.

3) Most soccer-first households (the largest and most critical of demos) in the United States aren’t paying attention to American soccer. Because well, it’s low level, inauthentic, and most importantly has historically discriminated against them – preferring instead to cater to the soft suburban soccer-mom demo.

As a consequence, it’s that soft culture that both dominates the narrative and creates policy when it comes to the American game – it has inculcated that softness into the very fabric of American soccer.

Yes, the soccer-first demographic, like 3four3, does call it like it is (e.g. as Colin put it in the above clip, “Michael Bradley is completely pedestrian”) but that has historically, and to this day, primarily occurred in relative isolation – as anyone from this demographic is not hired and graced with a large media platform. If one is hired, they are systematically neutered.

But there is someone with a heavyweight platform that has dipped his toe in the culture challenge.

Jurgen Klinsmann

Jurgen has criticized the players, and has been trying to send the message of “not good enough”, and lists reasons.

The result of his action and criticism?

The soft soccer-mom media turned on him and (at the behest of its master, MLS) launched a smear campaign against him that continues to date.

  • Prior to the World Cup, he stated the US can not win it. In other words, he told the unvarnished truth. He was real.
  • He deemed Landon Donovan not a good fit for the 2014 World Cup squad. (Note: Assessment of a player goes beyond his ability on the field, there are other critical factors a coach considers in making selections. This is a team game, after all. It’s not about 1 player.)
  • Players should go overseas to challenge themselves. This was an indictment of MLS, and the domestic culture.
  • He transmitted disappointment when he saw some of his key pieces coming back to MLS (e.g. Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore).
  • He said many moons ago, and continues to say, that our players are naive and “need to be nastier”.

There have been a variety of other incidents where the soccer-mom culture looked at him as “throwing players under the bus”.

They were also pissed when he suggested the media needed to further educate themselves in the game.

See, the culture here is precisely as Cowherd observes. The culture is soft. Even the words and phrases we use are soft.

If you look at what incumbent soccer media’s reactions/responses to Cowherd & Whitlock’s comments were, you a hard-pressed to find support for their observations.

Quite the contrary, most that’s been published whether on established media outlets, or social media commentary, was crafted to undermine these observations and uphold the soccer-mom status quo.

“We need to tell US soccer players, coaches, and fans the truth” – @WhitlockJason

“We’re not catching up with the rest of the world as long as soccer’s a sport for the upper class.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi Lalas represents the establishment’s (convenient) myths

Jason Whitlock hits the truth, again.

Absolutely. Absolutely that certain cultures are a better fit to becoming great at soccer than others. Those coming from an affluent suburban American culture, in general, just don’t “have it”.

Those coming from a socio-economic strata below affluence, in general, are better suited. There’s a particular mentality and set of values the latter has, and the former does not.

Some of the biggest inhibitors the suburban players face are:

  • The “it’s just a game” mentality. The other demo treats it as an arena to “best” others, since from a societal perspective they are looked as ‘lower class’. It’s personal.
  • The suburban players are brought up in an environment where ‘following the rules’ of the traditional American industrial complex is sacred, where self expression is only ok within narrow boundaries. In other words, being robot-like automatons vs flavorful full-range humans. Top level “creativity” isn’t being stifled by coaches on the field, their cultural upbringing is doing that job.
  • The suburban player derives his self-esteem from things other than how good he is in sport. For instance, getting good grades on some standardized test. They measure themselves on how good they are at following societal norms. They don’t need to be great at soccer.

“The people in our stands, at the MLS games, they’re wondering where their next glass of wine is coming from.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi has it totally wrong about pretty much everything. And he really goes off the rails at the end of the video when he tries to defend the absurdity of expecting the US to beat Argentina. It’s completely disingenuous, derived from the campaign to fire Jurgen Klinsmann, and frankly condescending to all US Soccer fans.

“And I saw the 3 American [analysts] pick us to win [vs Argentina], I was like … ‘nah man, don’t lie to us’” – @WhitlockJason

When an admitted soccer layman like Jason Whitlock can sniff out the bull shit, you know we have a serious problem.

Pitfalls of affiliation with European pro soccer clubs?

You might have read this blog post about the many changes in our Bay Area youth soccer landscape and also one with two recorded calls from two US youth soccer clubs discussing their experiences affiliating with European pro teams.

This post is a guest post written by Andrew Hogg, a Bay Area soccer dad, with his perspectives on the value of affiliations of our youth soccer clubs with European pro clubs.

The insights and views in this post are Andrew’s only, and he takes a strong position on this issue that won’t agree with some of you, but I hope that his views help to at least inform the debate about the value of these affiliations.

Please also refer to the comments section below for additional/opposing perspectives.

Over the last few years an increasing number of youth soccer clubs have ‘affiliated’ themselves with European pro soccer clubs. Those clubs include West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich.

The big question for parents and youngsters should be what the benefits will be on the field and how will the youngster improve as a player. Ask this question of many US youth clubs who have been affiliates for a few years and they typically only speak in generalities and typically point to overall ‘club growth’ as a benefit.

So let’s examine some of the promises made by our local youth clubs and their affiliated European clubs:

  • Access to their European youth development curriculum
  • An ID program or player development camps
  • Monthly calls with pro club coaches
  • One or two visits a year from pro club coaches
  • ‘Select teams’ formed from multiple affiliated US youth clubs to travel to tournaments in Europe
  • The possibility of select youngsters being able to train with the European clubs’ home youth academy

In return for these benefits, the US affiliate youth club pays an up-front fee, some annual fee, and requires their players to buy (typically once a year) and wear the Euro clubs’ uniforms.

But are these affiliations actually delivering an improved soccer experience to the youngsters at our youth clubs? Or are they just a way for those European clubs to get US parents to pay for the privilege of wearing Euro clubs’ jerseys and propagating their brand?

Is the main reason for our US youth clubs to affiliate with a Euro club simply a smart marketing strategy to grow their clubs, generating more revenue, but not necessarily better soccer?

Keep in mind that youth soccer is a business here in our country and youth clubs in our Bay Area are competing for players and resources, including money, fields, and coaches. Click here for a recent article on this topic. And here’s another one on pay-to-play.

Let’s take a look at each of the promised and implied benefits:

Curriculum

Let’s start with asking what a curriculum even is.

Is there a “system”? Does that system include number of days of training, training focus (technical, tactical, physical etc.) by age, a step-by-step progression model a-la Common Core, practice methodologies, workout drills, discipline models by age, a training ethos (# positions per player by age, playing time models by age, etc.).

Or, to be blunt about it, is the ‘curriculum’ just a bunch of drills that any coach or player or parent could just pull from the Internet?

When you’re promised a curriculum, ask your club to explain what that means, what aspects of training it will cover, in detail. And ask to see the curriculum. Many times the answer will be vague and no actual Euro club curriculum will be forthcoming.

ID Programs and Camps

Usually for even more money, your player can attend an ID Program. This is usually an additional practice, run by your club’s normal coaches, using the Euro club “curriculum”, and ostensibly used to “ID” players who might get “promoted” to the next ID Program (costing more money) and ultimately invited to play on a travel team in a tourney in Europe or on a “tour” to the affiliate club.

Often you are just paying for an extra practice with the club’s normal coaches using their standard curriculum. The camps are much of the same, offered to those in the ID Program, and probably more driven by the revenue they can bring the club than any real desire or ability to deliver superior training to your player.

Monthly Calls with Euro Club Coaches

What actionable items are produced from these monthly calls that have a direct effect on the field for your youngster? Or are these calls just to make the affiliate coaches and/or parent board members feel good?

Are European 2nd or 3rd tier youth coaches really that much more insightful (from 5,000 miles away, with no presence on the field) than a well-educated, motivated and experienced US youth coach? And are calls really enough to transfer the know-how that these Euro coaches have?

Annual Visits by Euro Club Coaches

Which coaches are coming? How long are they staying for? Who’s paying for their flight, hotel, rental car and per diem food expenses? What training of either coaches or players are they doing? For how many hours on how many days?

In reality most of these visits are for a week or two at most, by perhaps two second-tier coaches, sometimes in the summer when half the kids are “gone”, and are given to a specific age group or ‘level’ for a few hours during those two weeks.

‘Select Teams’ for Travel Tournaments

These are teams like a “West Coast Girls U15 Euro Club”, made up of players from multiple affiliated youth clubs. The kids are chosen as much for their parents’ willingness and ability to pay as for their soccer credentials.

They will travel to Europe, on the parents dime, to play in a tournament, or go on what’s commonly referred to as a “tour”, where they play a couple of friendly games, visit the stadium and tour some of the local sights.

These are tours that have been organized for years by third party companies for anyone with a team (and the money), but are now advertised directly by the affiliate club.

Are they worthwhile? For sure, as much as they have always been. It’s a holiday to Europe for parents and players, and it’s a way to get your player jazzed about soccer. That’s a genuine choice parents can make, of course.

But does it improve your soccer player? Does it increase your chances of playing for the Euro club? Of course not. What else could you have done with the thousands of dollars you spent (US tournaments, 1-on-1 training, summer camps, etc.) that would have improved your player’s chances of improving their game, getting to play at college, etc.?

The Big Promise

The big carrot often dangled in front of parents and players: players can be chosen to train in Europe with the pro club.

Many parents think their player is better than they really are. Many don’t understand the US Soccer system, think that NorCal Gold or Premier is the pinnacle, don’t know that USSDA exists, don’t know that their kid might be good in their local pond (even in a big pond like LA or Dallas) but is mediocre at best on a global scale.

Do one or two get chosen to go, all expenses covered? Maybe. But that’s after 1 or 2 have been chosen from your club to go to state tryouts, from which 1 or 2 were chosen to go to US tryouts, from which 1 or 2 were chosen to go to Europe. In other words the odds, after spending many thousands of dollars for travel and hotel stays, are miniscule.

For example, Liverpool have been doing this for years in the US, longer than probably any other club, and my understanding is that to date they have only taken 2 boys to Liverpool for a 1 week tryout, and neither progressed beyond that week. This isn’t a criticism of the Euro club (their only goal for their youth academies is elite talent identification after all), but parents needs to be aware of the reality of this.

In summary, these Euro club affiliations make many promises and often deliver on too few of them. There are probably exceptions, but in general the ‘return’ often isn’t good enough to justify the additional cost and inevitable changes at your club. Carefully evaluate your club’s implementation of any affiliation and how that implementation affects specifically your son or daughter.

Think carefully about which players might benefit more than others. For example, do the top 20% benefit because the club now attracts better players, but the bottom 80% get “pushed down” to make space for the new (and better) players but nevertheless have to pay more money every year for uniforms etc.? Consider carefully if and how the promised benefits of an affiliation trickle down to the large majority in your club.

How long will these affiliate programs last? In some cases, only until parents smell the bacon burning in the kitchen. Those affiliated youth clubs that make a much better effort to deliver the benefits to the majority of kids in the club can be successful with this if success is measured by a better soccer experience and education for the 80%.

One club’s view on parent refereeing: “a paid job”

First off, to avoid any misunderstand, this post is NOT meant to point a finger at a specific club or individuals at that club. The decision makers at this club were acting without malice in what they considered to be reasonable and in the best interest of their club. So the intention of this post is only to help ‘educate’ our youth soccer community, including decision makers at clubs (and leagues), triggered by an actual situation I encountered with one of the big clubs in our area.

One of my kids plays for one of the well-known clubs in the Bay Area and this club collects an additional $100 per player every season that parents can earn back through six hours of volunteering during the season. Any money left over at the end of the season is automatically donated to the club.

Volunteer tasks include activities such as lining a field or manning a tournament booth or helping to sell club spirit wear during a club event.

As you might know, I am a fully certified USSF referee and try my best to officiate as many youth games as I can every weekend to help our Bay Area soccer community, including many games for this specific club.

You probably already know that there is a big shortage of referees, but if you don’t then please take a moment to read this before continuing.

To my surprise, when I submitted my refereeing to this club as my volunteering contribution to claim the $100 back at the end of last season, I was told that this club doesn’t consider refereeing ‘volunteering’ because it is compensated.

The ironic thing is that in response to this same club’s request for parents to consider becoming certified referees “to help make sure games can happen” some years ago, I volunteered to become one.

And every six months or so this club’s referee coordinator sends out an email to all families asking for help officiating and the details of the next entry-level referee course. And, partly in response to this club’s recent shout-out, two of my kids are also now certified referees and volunteer their time on weekends in addition to their own soccer games.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that this is not about the $100. I am fortunate enough not to have to worry about the $100. Instead, it’s about the principle of this policy and the message that it is sending.

Also, let me be clear one more time that I don’t think this club is in any way ‘against’ referees. The club leadership and Board members are good people that want their club and kids to succeed. I have to assume that the majority on the club’s Board simply don’t understand what’s involved in becoming a referee and then officiating every weekend.

I am going to first talk about money, then my non-monetary commitments, and, finally, I will describe arguably the single most important and hidden volunteer contribution that goes along with a parent referee.

The club is correct that referees do get some compensation for games. It’s anywhere from $25 to $55 per game, depending on factors such as whether you’re the CR or AR, the age group, duration of the game, and level of play (e.g. CYSA league game or NPL or ECNL etc.).

So, for example, if I’m the AR for a 50-minute U8 CYSA game then I get $25. And if I’m the CR for a 90-minute U18 ECNL game then I get $55.

The total time commitment for the U8 game is around 2 hours and around 3 hours for the U18 game, when adding halftime (around 10 minutes), pre-game set-up and team check-in (we try to arrive 30 minutes prior to kick-off, but it’s often only 15 to 20 minutes because we’re rushing over from another game), post-game handshakes and paperwork etc. (10 minutes), and then, say, 30 to 60 minutes driving to and from the field. Sometimes we have back-to-back games at the same field so that saves us one leg of the drive.

So that’s $12.50 per hour for a typical U8 game and $18 per hour for a typical U18 game.

But that’s before deducting expenses!

Deduct from this the cost of fuel plus an allocation for wear and tear for my car. This wear and tear includes factors such as added mileage and the effects of usage on parts, tires, brakes, fluids etc. The IRS calculates the fully loaded cost for this to be $0.54 per mile. I drive an average of 10 miles one way to a game so that’s around $10 just for car usage.

Also deduct from the compensation the cost of additional food and drinks that I often grab on-the-go while driving from one game to the next. A per-game allocation of, say, $5 for extra food and a Peets coffee (to get my tired mind and body caffeinated for the fourth game under the sun that day) that I would not have bought if I wasn’t refereeing, and we’re looking at a total per-game cost of between $10 and $15.

And then there’s the cost for annual USSF certification and membership in the referees association, plus the cost for my equipment, which I estimate to be around $500 to $750. And I’m about to spend another round of money on equipment because USSF is introducing new referee uniforms.

I’m probably missing a couple of cost items, but I hope this gives you some insight into the expense side of refereeing. Nevertheless, a referee can come out ahead if he/she officiates enough games and thus covers his/her fixed cost.

Now, I’m fortunate enough not to have to worry about ‘coming out ahead’. Any money I ‘earn’ over and above my cost makes zero contribution to my family’s standard of living. And I can say with 99% certainty that the same applies to any parent at that club who decides to help out by becoming a referee. You would agree with me if you knew which club it was and the neighborhoods the families live in.

Next, let’s focus on the non-monetary aspects of what I do. It’s easiest to simply run a list:

  • 4 to 6 games per weekend (sometimes no games if I’m taking my daughter or son to an overnight tournament, and sometimes more if needed, especially during local tournaments) – a total of 10 to 20 hours per weekend and probably 200 to 300 hours per typical season;
  • I jump into games on short notice and drop whatever else I was planning to do with my kids or wife when I get an urgent email or call asking me to help out because a game is short referees or a referee fell ill;
  • I attend, on my own time and cost, referee association meetings to discuss and learn about becoming a better referee;
  • I attend, on my own time and cost, quarterly referee training seminars to become a better referee;
  • I read, on my own time and cost, articles on refereeing and study case studies on a daily/weekly basis to become a better referee;
  • I mentor, on my own time, new/young referees when asked by assignors;
  • I write, on my own time, about refereeing on this blog to help educate our soccer community here in the Bay Area;
  • I encouraged my two oldest kids to become referees, helped train them, often discuss refereeing decisions and the laws of the game with them, and take them to their games so we have new young referees to fill the shoes of those aging out;
  • I am studying, on my own time, the recently updated Laws of the Game – the biggest revamp of the laws in the history of the game;

I could go on.

Now let’s get to the typically overlooked yet most critical volunteer contribution of all. And this volunteer contribution gets zero recognition. At least a referee can get some personal satisfaction from officiating a game.

This critical volunteer contribution comes from my wife. She sacrifices her time every weekend to enable me (and my kids) to help out with officiating so that games can take place.

My wife puts up with all of this. Who takes care of the kids when I’m gone for the day or even weekend helping make sure youth games can happen? My wife. Who adjusts her schedule when I get an urgent call to help out with game? My wife. And who takes our kids to their games if those overlap with my officiating? My wife.

And my wife earns zero compensation and recognition for this volunteering. In fact, it is often a source of considerable stress in our family.

And, finally, at the end of an especially long weekend officiating, my body and mind are exhausted. I often have no energy to go out on a Saturday or Sunday evening, and Monday then becomes my recovery day – guess how productive my workday is on some Mondays?

I don’t like to talk about this. I’m not into self-promotion. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I do all this for a passion for the beautiful game and to help the kids in our Bay Area soccer community. For futbol…and a smile on the kids’ faces.

Yes, there are often many negative emotions during and after games as you can imagine, dear parents and coaches ;-), but, on balance, the positives of refereeing outweigh the negatives for me.

I couldn’t care less for any ‘compensation’ and I couldn’t care less for the $100 donation for this club. This isn’t about the money. And the same applies to practically any other parent referee.

But what I do care about is that refereeing by parents is viewed as a ‘paid job’. At a minimum, it completely ignores the very real sacrifices of the referee’s spouse.

I simply can’t see how a referee family’s contribution to our youth soccer community, including a specific club’s community, is worth less than spending a handful of hours manning a booth.

I strongly urge clubs to respect and recognize the contributions of parent referee families to our soccer community.

Anyway, I hope this is a useful perspective on parent refereeing that is probably not fully understood in our youth soccer community.

For futbol, for the kids!

U.S. Soccer’s Gender Wage Gap

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.

Let’s talk about money – lots of it!

It’s the end of the Spring season and some clubs are already asking for commitments for the Fall season. So it’s that time of year when parents are reminded again about the cost of youth soccer.

Competitive soccer is expensive, especially if your youngster plays on the top couple of teams in his/her age group at his club. And this cost increases as your youngster gets older.

According to my Quicken software we spent about $20,000 (no typo!) on soccer related cost in 2015 on our three comp soccer kids (U10, U12, and U14), excluding a big soccer-related trip we did during the Christmas school break. And some time ago I posted an article on another family’s similar spending level – click here to read it.

As a rule of thumb, I estimate that at one of the big clubs here in the Bay Area you can expect to pay around $2K-$3K per year when your youngster is 8 or 9, then around $3K-$4K when he/she is 10/11, and $5K-$7K at 12/13. It can easily reach $10K per year or more if your 16 year old daughter or son is on an ECNL or USDA team. Both travel a lot.

This is a lot of money! And a lot of parents get upset, of course. And some point the finger specifically at coaching fees. I will get to coaching fees a little later in this post.

First let’s take a step back for a moment and start with what many, probably most, parents want for their comp soccer youngsters:

  • great coach who really knows the game and how to teach it, fully committed to making youngsters the best they can be, in a positive environment, while also communicating frequently with parents;
  • good fields for practices and games, ideally all-weather artificial turf instead of bumpy and/or muddy grass;
  • quality equipment (balls, training accessories, etc.);
  • supplemental private or small-group clinics through the year;
  • variety of league games that develop the youngster and entertain the parents;
  • tournaments for that extra drama and team bonding – some medals hopefully too;
  • well-organized club – efficient software for registrations, effective and timely communications, sufficient oversight by the Director of Coaching to make sure coaches are doing their job well, ongoing development courses for coaches, both in-house and, probably more importantly, externally organized for a fresh perspective;
  • for well-developing youngsters a structured/organized path to higher-level teams within each age group, more challenging leagues such as ECNL and DA, and more challenging tournaments (local, region, state, national);
  • efficient and effective league and tournament organization;
  • qualified referees – while this is mostly a volunteer role referees do get paid some to cover their cost and to earn a little on top

The list goes on.

Now let’s be clear that all this costs money. Somebody has to pay for all this and because there are no subsidies for what is ultimate a private enterprise it’s the families that have to cover all of the cost (some clubs offer merit and/or needs-based scholarships but those are negligible).

It’s simple math.

And like all private market products and services this ‘youth comp soccer’ service we purchase from clubs and leagues (and individual coaches sometimes) is driven by the perceived quality of the service and the availability and cost of alternatives (i.e. other clubs/coaches and non-soccer activities).

Money is a medium of exchange and cost/prices reflect ‘value’ driven (mostly) by demand and supply. And there are apparently enough families that are willing to pay the going rate.

Are there imperfections in this youth soccer market? Sure, like in pretty much any market, and discussing those go beyond the scope of this post. But, for all practical intents and purposes, families have a choice how much and where to spend their soccer money.

Now let’s talk about the coaching pay.

Keep in mind that for the majority of comp soccer coaches at the bigger clubs this is often their livelihood or at least contributes materially to their income. It’s how they put food on the table and pay for their kids’ clothes. It’s how they pay for rent. It’s how they cover their cost of living. And our Bay Area has one of the highest cost of living in the country.

I estimate that typical comp soccer coaches make anywhere from $20K to $50K per year, depending on how many teams they coach per season, how experienced they are, which club they coach for, and how many private lessons they do per week.

And I further estimate that top coaches with a good amount of teams and maybe also some club-level responsibilities can earn up to $100K, even $200K at the very top. Some of this additional pay comes from offering clinics outside the usual team practices and and elite coaches can charge $50 (and more) per player per hour for a small-group clinic with, say, four players. That’s $200+ per hour.

But let’s focus on the ~80% of coaches that coach most of our kids.

Living on $20K in the Bay Area is very difficult even when you’re young and single. It’s not much better with $50K. And it’s even difficult with $75K-$100K if the coach has a family.

Great coaches that work hard and are committed and/or have broader responsibilites such as Director of Coaching roles deserve to be compensated for the work they do. Just like in any other profession.

There are some volunteer coaches that do a fine job, of course. I know of one team that is still keeping up with wins and rankings with the elite group of teams in that age group and the coach is a volunteer. The players aren’t nearly as proficient because they lack the technical skills, for example, but this volunteer coach knows how to maximize the odds of winning. So there are exceptions to the rule, of course, if winning is your primary goal.

But if longer-term player development, quality, efficiency, sustainability, and scalability are important then comp soccer needs professional coaches and clubs.

But like any business a soccer club (and also individual coaches) have to continue to offer the best possible product and strive to continuously improve and innovate to satisfy its ‘customers’, the players and families. If the quality drops too low and/or the club doesn’t handle its families and players professionally then the club will sooner or later lose its customers.

So if the product offered by the club and/or coach is perceived to be superior and families are willing to pay for it, then why should the club and/or coach not be ‘allowed’ to make as much money as possible?

Why should this be any different from, say, a financial consultant charging as high an hourly rate as possible for his or her services? Or the cleaning lady trying to negotiate the highest possible hourly rate for her services? Or you and me negotiating the highest possible salary and bonus in our professional lives?

If what you do is valued highly and someone offers you double or triple what you’re getting now and you can therefore buy that four bedroom modern house in a neighborhood with great schools then why not charge for your services?

Money is a reflection of the value you deliver. There’s nothing bad or dirty or questionable about that.

There are non-monetary measures of ‘value’, of course, and those are important motivators in some professions, but money is a strong indicator of delivered value in private markets, including youth soccer.

You have to continue to deliver a great work product, of course. If you don’t then the payments will stop quite quickly because parents will go elsewhere for a better product.

Like with all purchasing decisions, families need to make a decision about what’s important and affordable for them.

If a club’s activities are simply too costly and your youngster isn’t talented enough then you need to find another club. Or move your son/daughter down to a lower team that doesn’t train as much and only plays games within driving distance. The cost for this second or third team should be lower. Don’t waste your money!

For example, the annual cost to play on an ECNL team is much higher than the cost for the second or third team. This is mostly because the ECNL team travels much more.

So take a step back and honestly assess your youngster’s soccer potential and decide on what’s important to your youngster and your family.

A good friend of mine with tremendous knowledge of competitive sports, including soccer, keeps reminding me of how delusional we as parents can be. Here’s a good blog post on DPD – Delusional Parent Disorder. Love the term!

If your youngster isn’t heading for an ECNL team (girls) or an USDA team (boys) then don’t waste your hard earned money chasing the wrong goal. The same applies for any other level of play – if he/she simply isn’t going to make the first or second or third team then stop chasing that with money and sacrificed time.

Instead, focus on having a great time at soccer together. Make sure your son/daughter learns to enjoy the game for a lifetime. He/she doesn’t have to play on the ‘best’ team or club for that to happen. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

But it’s ultimately your choice in this private market called “youth soccer”.

P.S.: There are very problematic issues arising from this ‘pay-to-play’ market model we have here in our country, which exceeds the scope of this blog post. I will post separately on that in a few days. Stay tuned.

 

Recorded calls: two clubs’ experiences affiliating with English pro team.

Following up from my recent post on big changes in the Bay Area youth soccer landscape, here are two recorded conference calls discussing two youth clubs’ experiences affiliating with English pro team Tottenham Hotspur.

These calls cover detailed information on cost to club and families, impact on player recruitment, and some of the challenges and opportunities this kind of affiliation brings.

To be clear, I am not arguing for or against these kinds of affiliations. The value depends on the specific youth club, what the pro club is offering specifically, and how an affiliation is implemented. It can make a lot of sense in many situations, but probably isn’t the right thing for every youth club.

Also, with any change comes disruption. There will probably always be some stakeholders (players, families, coaches) that end up worse off, but that shouldn’t stop clubs from changing/evolving.

And let’s keep in mind that these affiliations are still relatively new so expect teething problems in the first couple of years.

Conference Call with El Cerrito Soccer Club, East Bay, CA


Conference Call with Tallahassee Soccer Club, Florida

The very very very low odds of making it big in soccer

Now that the fall soccer season is over it’s time for some of us ‘crazy’ soccer parents to take a step back and reflect.

Here’s a simple fact: no youngsters you know in youth soccer nor anyone you have ever watched or shared a tournament with all these years will make it to the top. This is a statistical certainty.

Here’s a full list of Arsenal youth academy youngsters over the last 15+ years and where they ended up:

https://arsenalyouth.wordpress.com/academygraduates/

Too much data for me to summarize here. You might want to take a few moments to browse around on that site.

Very sobering I think. Arsenal’s youth academy is highly rated, even amongst the elite clubs in the world.

Also keep in mind that very few of the Barca La Masia youth academy youngsters make it big in the end.

For some of you this is probably obvious already and you’re encouraging your son or daughter to participate in youth soccer for the right reasons.

But there are too many delusional parents out there that are behaving in ways that simply doesn’t make sense.

If you think you might be one of them please take a moment to take a deep breath and reflect on what truly is important for your son or daughter learning and playing this beautiful game.

We can debate what is considered ‘making it to the top’ of course. For example, it might be getting a soccer college scholarship which is quite a bit removed from the elite pro clubs, of course. But even soccer scholarships are not easy.

Keep a healthy perspective and make sure you focus on what’s truly important. Enjoy your time together with your children and make sure they enjoy the beautiful game…for a lifetime.

Questions to ask when choosing a soccer club

It’s the end of another soccer season so tryouts are upon us once again. And this time we are going to see more than the usual movement of players because of the reshuffling of teams driven by the U.S. Soccer mandated switch to calendar year age groups.

This switch isn’t mandatory until 2017, but the leagues are implementing the switch starting with the Fall 2016 season and many clubs are implementing this switch for this upcoming Spring season to get a head-start before the more important Fall season starts.

The following is a guest post from another soccer dad here in the Bay Area. I’m sure you will find Andrew’s suggestions helpful as you try to make the ‘right’ decision for your son or daughter.

Is your 7-10 year old ready to promote herself from recreational soccer to competitive? Or is your 12-14 year old competitive player ready to raise the bar and move to a more competitive club?

Either way, you’re probably looking at a much larger investment of both time and money compared to what you’re spending today.

It’s all too easy to choose a soccer club based on where your kid’s friends or schoolmates play. Or based on that banner you saw stuck on the side of a fence. Or on the teams you see practicing and playing at the local fields.

That will certainly work if you’re just looking for ‘more soccer’. However, if you’re looking for ‘better soccer’ and a good return on your time and money, then you need to do your homework and ask some important questions.

I’ve coached rec soccer and have had two kids in comp soccer for a total of 7 years, or, put another way, an investment of about $14,000 and untold hours. I’ve served on the Board of a soccer club and seen the inner workings of club soccer in the Bay Area.

With that background, here are the questions I would ask if my kids were choosing a new soccer club. Keep in mind that no soccer club is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask.

  1. Is the club a 501c3 company?
    • In other words, is it a charity and therefore has its financials somewhat open? You can request that a 501c3 company make its tax submission available to you to read, listing basics like executive salaries, top 5 paid employees salaries, etc.
    • Or is it a private company, in which case you must ask yourself if the club exists to truly teach high quality soccer or to maximize the financial return for the owners. If it’s the latter then decisions might be made (such as the number of teams per age group, the number of kids on each team) that benefit the financials at the expense of the kids.
  2. Are the coaches paid hourly or salaried? This speaks to whether or not your coach is being motivated to excel and how.
    • If hourly, how? Are they being paid for the full time they invest in practices and games and tournaments?
    • If salaried, how are they incentivized to go the extra mile vs. just showing up?
    • Are they compensated for travel to tournaments and similar?
    • Do they have a bonus program and how does that work?
    • Is their equipment bought for them or are they expected to provide their own?
    • Are they provided with team jackets and pants and raincoats etc. or are they expected to buy their own?
  3. How are coaches monitored on the field, at practices and games? Most clubs will tell you “We have a fantastic curriculum”, but how is that actually implemented consistently across all teams at the club?
    • Is there a Director of Coaching/Training who spends a minimum amount of time with each coach making sure they are following the curriculum, the discipline model, training ethos, etc.
    • What is this minimum amount of time spent monitoring coaches? Many clubs will give lip service to this model but do not follow thru because it takes a significant investment of time (and therefore money).
    • If a coach isn’t monitored, then there is nothing to incentivize them to follow the clubs curriculum and training, vs. just doing what they want. And there’s nothing there to support them to say “You’re doing that wrong, lets show you how to do it right”.
  4. What is the curriculum? What coaching model is followed?
    • Is it written down? If not then how do coaches know what it is?
    • What is taught at what age? What is taught first? E.g. Understanding space and position and movement, or moving with the ball, or passing and receiving, or tactics, or technical skills? Or all at once?
    • How are coaches educated (initially and ongoing) on the curriculum? At hire and never again? At weekly or monthly meetings? On the field or in a meeting?
    • Along with training to the curriculum, what is done to ensure the kids are still having fun while working hard?
  5. What is the clubs model for winning vs. player development?
    • Do the best kids play 100% of the time and the worst kids sit 50% of the time? Or do the most dedicated kids play more of the time? Or is playing time shared equally at younger ages, as suggested by US Soccer and most European models?
    • Is the goal at the team level to win or to develop players? How is this enforced with the coaches at the team level?
    • How many kids do you place on a team – a few to make sure playing time is high, or a lot to make sure there are always enough kids?
    • Do you keep smaller teams and use guesting across teams to ensure enough players at games? Or do you build large teams with minimal to zero guesting?
    • Note that 100% of costs (coach, field, etc) are driven by teams, not players. Therefore adding kids to teams is adding revenue and very little extra cost.
  6. How is fitness and diet incorporated into training?
    • Do practices incorporate endurance, speed, strength etc., on and off the ball?
    • Do children who maintain a low level of fitness and/or high BMI get education/training on getting fitter, changing their diet etc.
    • Do players who refuse to develop their fitness get moved to the bench or lower level teams? This becomes more important as the kids get older and more serious.
  7. What is included in my fees:
    • Uniform – included? How frequently changed?
    • Practices – how many a week and for how many weeks of the year?
    • Games – NorCal or CYSA, and how many games per season/year?
    • Tournaments – included or paid out of pocket? How many per season/year?
    • Are coaching and field fees included in my annual fees?
    • What training sessions are offered during the off-season and how much do they cost?
  8. What are the policies for player movement between teams
    • Are there opportunities to guest-play on other teams, to both gain confidence and challenge the player?
    • When are players moved between teams – once or twice a year or on an ongoing basis?
    • What’s the balance between building team cohesion vs team movement? Is the team roster a revolving door of players, or is there some team stability?
    • What are the reasons for moving a player up or down

Choosing a soccer club can be deceptively simple – just choose your local neighborhood club or the one your kids’ friends play at.

But if you want to make sure you are spending your time and money wisely and have your child develop well in a positive environment then you have to do some homework.

Happy hunting….

Andrew Hogg

Very good post on what is holding us back. Read the comments also!

 

Some thoughts on cleats

Some parents have asked for my thoughts on soccer cleats given the wide range of brands, designs, quality, and cost out there. Of all the pieces of equipment cleats are obviously the single most important. Pretty much everything your child does during practices and games focuses on the feet, so my suggestion is to invest a little in good, well-fitting cleats.

Right now I think that for youth the Adidas Ace 15.3 FG AG J cleat has a very good balance between cost and performance. This cleat costs around $55, but please see my suggestion at the end of this post about how to save some money if you can time the purchase.

The ~$50 to ~$60 price range has been consistent for me over the years. There is absolutely no reason to spend more than this at the youth level. For example, Adidas also sells a Messi 15.1 cleat for $100. Not worth it in my view.

I would also not go significantly below that $50 price point. Adidas and Nike sell kids cleats for $20 or $30, but the quality of those cleats in terms of fit, weight, and foot support drops too much in my view. And the material doesn’t give enough ‘feel’ on the ball.

Also keep in mind that cleats have different stud lengths. In our Bay Area I recommend you go with FG (Firm Ground) studs. Note that the above Adidas Ace shoe has a new FG/AG hybrid stud design with different stud lengths to accommodate both firm ground grass surfaces (FG) and artificial turf surfaces (AG). The image above shows what this hybrid looks like.

The best time to buy a cleat is when the $50/$60 cleat is on sale to clear inventory for the new model (which is often just a new design without significant performance improvements). At that point you can often get that ~$55 cleat for ~$30. I then tend to buy at least one size that fits and then the next two half-sizes up. It’s a great deal and I have them at home ready to go for when my son/daughter suddenly says how tight their cleats are.

So, my rule of thumb is to focus on correctly sized firm ground (FG) Adidas or Nike cleats in the $50 to $60 price range and then wait for price reductions to snap up a couple of sizes of that cleat for (almost) half price.

One family’s spending on youth soccer

CLICK HERE for a sobering article on the money (and time) spent on competitive youth soccer by one family near Sacramento.

Typical annual spending: $17,000. Tournaments in places like San Diego and Santa Cruz. Sound familiar?