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USA youth must be given fair chance

Youth soccer
Youth clubs are finally taking steps to rid soccer of shady practices.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It's a cliché almost as old as the game itself: Soccer is big business. But when the grassroots level falls prey to this soccer-industrial complex, as it did for a time here, you have a serious problem on your hands.

Youth soccer boomed in the 1980s and 1990s -- ironically, just after the collapse of the North American Soccer League. Then, with the advent of Major League Soccer in 1996, American soccer players became a legitimate export product, and men started to be able to play soccer and make a living at it. Women weren’t left out: Title IX made the sport a great way for smart, athletic kids of limited means to get into top-tier schools. Parents started to think, not unreasonably, that youth club soccer could take their children to a good college and a lucrative career.

What happened next is well-known: Camps and travel soccer teams, charging many thousands of dollars, mushroomed around the country, staffed by the raft of European coaches -- some with strong credentials, some with barely any -- who came flocking over.

“The finances that are involved are quite incredible,” says former Newcastle defender and FOX Sports 1 analyst Warren Barton. “It’s not a small business; it’s a massive business in big pockets of the United States”

Some coaches took to stockpiling talent in order to win competitions, building their reputations and attracting yet more players whose parents were willing to fork over a sizable chunk of their income.

“It’s not about developing the players but building the best teams to give the coach their credibility,” says Barton, who coached in the Los Angeles Galaxy academy and has three sons playing youth soccer in Southern California. “One coach tried to take a team to another club and was trying to leave out an 8-year-old boy. In my 30 years in football, that was the most despicable thing I’ve seen. The coach said it was business.”

Coaches hopping from one club to another with entire teams became common. They went wherever they’d get the biggest cut from the players’ dues. That’s how some youth clubs -- we’ll call them “super clubs” -- attracted dozens of youth teams, turning handsome profits. “I find it quite appalling that you’ve got these directors of football at these clubs who have no qualifications but have an accent who come over and run a multi-million dollar business,” says Barton.

A casual survey proves this is big business indeed. Large youth club programs -- which can have several dozen teams under a single umbrella -- boast about national championships, and “great success” in European tournaments. Some claim to offer programs to develop players for the US national teams; others explicitly state they will help players pursue professional soccer careers. All of it costs a lot of money.

For some of these organizations it’s a simple equation: more teams, more trophies, bigger brand, more kids, more money. But what often gets lost in the shuffle is the quality of the soccer education. The top teams at these clubs can offer solid training -- even if winning and rankings are too often prioritized over development. But the lower-level teams in these systems seem to exist mostly to generate revenue -- and some are simply neglected. But it is the lower-level teams who make the gears turn: their revenue helps pay for the scholarships given out to the biggest prospects, who might bring the program prestige down the line.

NO STONE UNTURNED

The United States Soccer Federation has quietly built an expansive scouting network to find the best young players in the country.

There’s also this damning fact: despite America having tens of millions of kids playing the game at every level, the returns are very slim indeed. Far more top-level athletes are produced in hockey than in soccer in this country, despite hockey having a vastly smaller pool. According to the most recently available numbers, registered youth soccer players outnumber registered youth hockey players by six to one in the USA. This doesn’t count the millions of unaffiliated soccer players.

Some see welcome change. Through the United States Soccer Development academy -- which currently counts 100 clubs across the under-18 and under-16 age groups, soon to be expanded to more clubs and an under-14 vision -- the federation superimposes a system of best practices on the once unwieldy youth scene and encourages clubs to do away with pay-to-play where possible. Most MLS clubs no longer charge players for their development academy teams. And many independent clubs are following their lead.

“I think we’re at a turning point where we’re finally starting to see a way out of the super clubs,” says former Dutch national team winger and US under-14 boys national team assistant coach Dave van den Bergh. “I think now people are starting to look more for quality and understand a little more about soccer and understand that something huge is not always the best for them. The knowledge is better, and the federation is making sure there’s more and better coaching education.”

A clear development structure, orchestrated top-down by the sport’s governing body, makes the path to the top plain to see, to the detriment of the soccer world’s proverbial monorail salesmen. A little research shows what clubs can actually offer, and what’s a hollow promise.

“I think the Development Academy league has been a huge success in placing the talent in one competition and against the best players in every age group,” says van den Bergh. “Instead of playing in these rinky-dink leagues and once a year playing in a national tournament, they now have a week-in, week-out battle against the best of the best.”

GREAT PRETENDERS

Building up talent is simply asking for trouble. Just ask these guys.

There’s no more disguising an expensive but ultimately shoddy setup as a legitimate path to the pros. “We see with the [youth] national team [program] a huge amount of the players coming out of the academy league,” says van den Bergh.

“It’s very hard, especially in the higher age groups, to not come from the academy league.”

These are healthy signs of soccer’s maturation. There’s no conning the customer any longer. And as with any business, the disappearance from the scene of those peddling snake oil typically heralds legitimacy.

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