Updated: Jun 11, 2019
The United States of America, a sporting powerhouse of a nation did not qualify for World Cup 2018. Wow! How? What happened?
It's generally accepted that the USA is a dominant player in sports, especially sports on a global stage. So, imagine the shock to everyone when it became clear that the USA men soccer team was not going to participate in the 2018 World Cup because the team failed to qualify. The failure to qualify was stamped by losing to Trinidad and Tobago.
As expected, the news media and the general public had a lot to say. Most of the coverage tried to explained the reasons the United States did not qualify and what was needed to be done with youth soccer in America. It seemed like every article or the comments left in response to the article blamed all the issues with soccer in America on “pay-to-play”. The general idea is that soccer in America is the way it is because only those with a lot of money can afford to play. Pay-to-play has created an infrastructure around youth soccer that has made it accessible to fewer members of the potential pool of players and as result is played mainly by affluent middle class White kids.
Yes, I agree that youth soccer has become cost prohibitive and this has hurt the sport in America. I would argue that it's not so much the pay-to-play model that has hurt American soccer, there's something else. The pay-to-play model exist in every aspect of sports in America, everything from basketball to gymnastics is costly. What has really hurt soccer in America is the industrialization of the sport. The big youth clubs view soccer as a lucrative short term business and do not focus on developing players for the long term. It is a numbers game for the larger clubs and everyone involved is incentivize to focus on the immediate win to the detriment of skill development. Parents are paying a lot of money so they expect to win, they need something to show for spending all that money. The coaches feel this pressure, so they focus on winning at all cost. Players are put in roles solely based on their natural talents when they join the club. If a kid is"strong" at 10yrs old, they are stuck in defense for the rest of their club career. If a kid is "fast" at 9yrs old, they are stuck on the wing for their club career. The lucky kid that is skilled at 11yrs old, will play mid-field and attacker. That lucky kid also has a personal coach that provide training in skill development outside of the club team. The other not so lucky kids technical and tactical skills are stunted and never fully develop because the club coach is not focus on development. The focus is on winning, the coach needs to win to secure that coaching job for the next season. It's a vicious cycle that leads to these great athletes that were never fully developed as soccer players competing for the national team and can't control an aerial ball.
The remedy to this sad reality is provided at the local and small soccer academies. The training provided at local soccer academies is the best way for young players to develop their skills and game IQ. These “boutique” academies have coaches that are passionate about the game and about transferring their love and knowledge of the game to the next generation of young players. Most of these local academies have smaller programs. The benefit of a small program is that the coaches provide individualize coaching to each player with an emphasis on skill refinement and mastery. The coaching staff at these academies are usually made up of immigrants that are doing the coaching out of love for the game and not the money. The coaches usually have full-time work in another field and are not solely dependent on the income from coaching to support their lifestyle. As a result, these academies cost a fraction of what it cost in the larger soccer clubs. I could keep going on about the great attributes of the local and small soccer academy but you get the point.
Let me point out something else that is obvious but rarely spoken. These programs are not great at marketing and administration. Actually, most of them are bad at providing basic organizational and programming management. The leadership in these academies are horrible at marketing, which is the complete opposite of their counterparts at the larger clubs. The coaches at the smaller clubs generally view marketing as boasting and unnecessary, they expect their coaching to speak for itself.
I attribute a lot of this to the immigrant mentality, which can be summed-up as follows ‘work hard, do amazing work and let the work speak for itself’’.
These coaches do exceptional work training and teaching kids the game but do a poor job selling their programs and wealth of knowledge to parents. Most of these academies do not use technology to manage their programs. Many of the academies lack a basic functional website. They are also not as interested in the look of their team. Most academies are not wearing the latest and most fashionable uniforms. The focus is on the game and improving young players.
The bigger soccer clubs are the complete opposite. They have great administration and marketing. Their jerseys are always the latest and they make great use of technology. They have an industrialized approach to soccer and coaching. They focus on winning early and not player development. None of this is the fault of the large clubs. They are incentivize to be this way by the parents, so as the astute business people that they are, the large clubs are providing a product that many parents are buying. This does not mean that the product is best for the young player. It means that it’s the best product for the parent.
Here is the simple way to decide if a local small academy is best for your child. If your child is really interested in the game and serious about being the best player they can be. Pick the local small academy. If your child is not really focus on soccer and this is just one of many extra-curricular activities, then pick the larger club. The larger club will also insulate them from really having to push themselves but provide a fun experience for them to still be around the game.
Also, when selecting potential coaches for your kid, use this simple heuristic. The coach should be a first generation American or an immigrant from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, South or Latin America. In short, the coach should not be “American”.
Large clubs tend to employ American coaches that have received every possible coaching license available. This looks good for marketing to parents and signaling to other American coaches but its deeply flawed. Soccer is not a game learned by understanding theory alone. The art and science of the game is nuanced and it’s something you have to do and live. The coach should live the culture of the global game and be an active student of the game. Foreign coaches also have the added benefit of generational knowledge of the game past down from their forefathers.
I was always amazed that on my Division-1 college soccer (the second highest level of soccer in America) all the American players had so little game IQ and knowledge of the game history. Whenever we would be in our locker room between practices or games, they would all want to watch ESPN SportsCenter to see highlights of American Football, Basketball, Baseball or Hockey. They refused to watch the soccer games of the European league. My American teammates had no clue which teams competed in the Champions League. They generally had no interest in the sport besides their playing. Contrast that with the immigrants or first generation Americans on the team, the game was a lived experience. This was also evident in the way the different groups played on the field; the Americans were method players and played predictable ball. The foreigners played with flair and creativity. As a result, the teams that won the national championship throughout my college years were all teams with majority immigrant players on the roster.
Think about selecting a soccer coach for your kid like this, if you're in America and you're trying to give your young gymnast the best gymnastic training and you had to pic a coach from Atlanta, Russia or Trinidad, which coach will you pick?
Or if you're in China and you're trying to give your young basketball player the best basketball training and you had to pick a coach from North Carolina,, Hong Kong or Rwanda, which coach will you pick?
In both scenarios, the best answer is obvious. You pick a coach that is from a culture with a nuance understanding of the sport and the people from that place have exhibited mastery of the sport on the global stage.
When it comes to youth soccer development in the US, parents can help in the development of talent to compete on the global scale by taking their talented kids to smaller local soccer academies.