A recent survey estimates that around 27% of young Americans play soccer, either competitive travel, high school, college or rec programs, so why can’t a nation of amazing athletes composed of 329,500,000 people produce the next Gigi Buffon or Manuel Neuer?
4 years ago, more than three million young Americans played for youth competitive soccer clubs and that nearly a third of young Americans play the game at some level. The Aspen Institute goes a lot further than anyone and claims that approximately five million young Americans play soccer – that’s equivalent to the population of the Republic of Ireland (Eire). It’s presumptuous to ask why the US has not produced in the past a Pat Jennings or today they don’t have their very own De Gea, but you’d think that we could consistently turn out one of two per decade. Yet we don’t. Why?
I have spoken with youth soccer club coaches from all over the country through our social media accounts, (even FIFA scouts) about the current state of the player development in the US. Most of them agrees that some light progress has been made over the last 15-20 years, but nearly unanimous disagree that the big next step forward will happen any time soon.
France (FFF) opened a nationwide training center in 1988 and won the World Cup ten years later. In 1999, the United States Soccer Federation opened the well known Bradenton residency program for U-17 players. With that nothing really changed, the US ranked 20 in 1990, 21 in 2010 and in 2019 we slid down to 25th place, Spain 9 years ago won an amazing World Cup with a very basic 4-3-3 starting formation. In 2011, US Soccer changed their youth curriculum to focus heavily on just that (4-3-3). Both changes never worked, they had no effect on the development of young soccer players in general.
Pushing both high school and college soccer to adopt a 10-month season also never worked. The idea is to make in schools soccer a year-round sport. It would work in college and many college coaches agree with me, but in High School a 10 month soccer season means that players would have to choose between playing for a youth soccer club or their school team. Most of the MLS (and some of the USL) academies often require a player to choose club or school. However, in most states, including the great state of Florida, the high school soccer season only lasts a few months, so most non-MLS youth soccer clubs let players head to school practice during the week. Central Florida has made an effort to support both, laying off travel soccer all winter and promoting high school soccer to play during this period. The college soccer coaches I personally spoke with are excited by a 10-month season, but are waiting for the NCAA to approve. This waiting time has now become a few years!
Can we blame the “Youth Soccer” coaches? Yes, in part we can! not directly because even the recent confusion of youth coach licensing here in the US is just a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling building. I have collected my licenses here and I confronted them with the ones I obtained in Europe and quiet frankly the differences between the two federation licensing is abnormal. One of the instructor at my Italian Goalkeeper pro-license was Gianluca Pagliuca someone that played for the Italian national team for 12 years. The federation had GK preps from Serie B teams come to work with us. The location was Coverciano, based outside Florence, Italy and home of the Italian national soccer team.
In the United States my USSF D1 licensing was held in Palm Beach Gardens, the classroom was a storage building 15 x 20 ft, no windows, no ventilation, shoulder to shoulder 24 of us tacked like sardines. The fields: They looked like the beaches of Normandy back in 1944, sand and huge holes.
This is not in any way the “American Way”, because I have collected all levels of the USC (United Soccer Coaches) goalkeeper diplomas and every location the course was held, the instructor/coach ratio was 1 to 6, incredible facilities, very professional coaches. So here again, it seems that the blame falls back on US Soccer for not getting the job done
The Dutch team Ajax has a truly amazing Academy, and their focus is producing a gem of soon-to-be professional player and funds, yes fund which can then help improve facilities and coaching at the academy rather than just winning youth tournaments and bragging about it on social media. For the last 20-25 years, the focus at the youth level in the US has been fielding a team that wins as much as they can today, tomorrow, withing the season and not preparing college or professional players for the years to come.
The biggest problem for talented young American soccer players is the NO PAY NO PLAY model. Players who are 8 to 15 and want to play in a youth soccer club that “offers” ECNL or NPL don’t really need to impress in a tryout because if the parents can to shell out between $1,000 to $4,500 per year they’re good to go. Every coach has a story about a talented kid who disappeared suddenly, probably due to financial issues. Even if it has been drastically reduced in the past years many youth soccer clubs offer fee waivers for those in financial need. For example at our Goalkeeper School we have in place a No-Pay policy for single income or single parent soccer players, this is about 12% of our school numbers.
Something that we’ve started doing and I think that we’re the first to introduce it: Goalkeeper that can’t afford to play at a youth soccer club, train with us for free, that way these talented young boys and girls remain in the ring just in case the opportunity knocks and a free ride at a local soccer club becomes reality.
However now with the MLS academies growing fast, the winds could “slightly” change. Keep in mind that entry is competitive, all MLS academies require four or even five days of training a week, but the good news is that they are free 15 years of age and older. The MLS academies offer first of all a free but equally important an elite instruction, a model that is the complete opposite to 95% of the entrenched pay-to-play model.
The MLS but also USL and NASL academies have already started to throw out on the field professional goalkeepers. In the past 12 years nine so-called Home-Grown goalkeepers have signed for MLS soccer teams. However, MLS academies cat accept everyone. Identifying players at such a young age is really not that easy. At the age of 11 both Messi and Ronaldo were told by their club coaches that they weren’t what the coach was looking for. That just proves amazing talent can blossom at different ages.
So how can non-pro team academies, who train 97% of young US players move away from the NO PAY NO PLAY system? Well the international soccer federation FIFA has two regulations that can make the change: Training fees and solidarity payments. A solidarity payment is when any professional soccer club sells a player before their contract ends. The buying soccer club is supposed to withhold 3% to 5% of the transfer fee to then pay to youth soccer clubs who trained the player. However only in the case when a player under age 23 signs his or her first pro contract.
Let’s cut it down and make it simple to understand: Let’s say that my son (now he’s only 8) at the age of 17 signs his first professional contract with a MLS team. He trained for several years with the Deltona Youth Soccer Club. That MLS team would owe a percentage of funds to my son’s youth soccer club based on the time he trained there. That’s right there is the training fee mechanism that is happening in Europe and most of South America. Now, lets move forward a few years and that MLS team sells Matt to SS Lazio in Italy for $100,000,000. SS Lazio would need to retain 5% of the fee to pay to the Deltona Youth Soccer Club. And if Lazio then sold Blake back to another MLS team for another $10,000,000, that new MLS team would need to retain 5% of the fee to pay that club again That’s the official FIFA solidarity mechanism. Doing the math: In the 15 years Blake was sold to different pro-soccer teams, the Deltona Youth Soccer Club would have made $7,000,000.
For years, youth soccer clubs in all of the US did not take any advantage of those funds. However, now a growing number of US youth clubs have requested those solidarity fees after some big MLS transfers have taken place. In speaking with the legal office for Crossfire Premier Soccer Club and the Dallas Texans Soccer Club, both advanced youth soccer clubs, their position is that these fees will be totally reinvested to improve the quality of coaching. Both clubs can hire more full-time coaches and give more free rides to worthy players. Sadly, youth clubs have faced stiff resistance in collecting these fees, where the law is weak with the strong and strong with the weak.
Of course, the United States Soccer Federation justifies its inaction due to so-called legal red flags. The federation and the MLS have argued that such fees are illegal, when in the rest of the world it’s totally legit. The only national law to prohibit child labor in the US, and this is a loophole that both US Soccer and the MLS have found and stick to it. However taking a closer look, the Fair Labor Standards Act, only applies to children under the age of 16. Thus, youth soccer clubs around the country are seeking to get some of those fees for players trained over that age.
The average MLS clubs is valued at $160,000,000. Even if the MLS made training payments of $75,000 each to youth clubs for all 84 players in the latest MLS Super Draft, the total would come to $6,300,000. By comparison, each MLS club has $800,000 per year of targeted allocation money to play with. Simply chump change for an MLS soccer club, but can mean more free rides for a youth soccer club. Second, and most importantly, youth soccer is divided in the US and the perception of US Soccer has always been very poor.
Now, with that being said, there are a few youth soccer organizations out there that are totally against this! Why? They’re the one that want to throw wins, victories, promotions and trophies in the face of the players and the parents, they’re about winning, showcasing, offering costly tournaments and camps one after another, fast cash! Obviously in the long run they’ll reach out for the handed over MLS/USL cash if there is some, but sadly these clubs projects are to get at parents pocket books now!
So, at the end of this long read what do we have?
US Soccer wont make the move and remains the only soccer nation that wont allow youth soccer clubs to collect on the players they created. US Soccer this way is refusing to help the youth soccer club develop, so pretty much we all know who’s to blame…