For a revealing insight into many of the things that ail American soccer, you needn’t look much further than the youth setup at the grassroots level.
While much progress has been made through the advent of MLS academies, expanded involvement from the United States Soccer Federation in player development beyond their youth national teams and the slow erosion of pay-to-play schemes, structural issues remain at all the levels labeled something other than “elite.”
Until recently, I was a volunteer assistant coach for the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) program in Westchester County, just outside New York City. Over three seasons, I helped out with a boys’ under-14 team and a co-ed under-16 side. And from observing the practices at the bottom of the sport I cover, I learned a great deal about the genesis of some systemic issues that persist at the top of it in this country.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the coaching a great deal and only stopped doing it because we moved and my schedule grew ever more hectic. And I won’t portend to have been a good coach either, or a solution to any of the problems I’ll lay out. Being Dutch, I yelled too much about spacing. Frankly, I doubt very much that I made anybody any better at soccer — or life.
Nor is this an indictment of AYSO, a wonderful organization that accomplishes its objective of getting kids outdoors and moving about, no small feat given the way we live now. Rather, it’s an exploration of why, if we’re quite honest, the United States continues to lag behind in the production of sufficiently skilled and savvy soccer players to compete with the very best, as its economic and demographic makeup suggests it should.
But what I learned during my happy spell with America’s second-biggest youth soccer organization at some 650,000 players — United States Youth Soccer counts about 3 million — is that very few opportunities exist to enjoy a serious soccer education in this country, especially if you can’t afford the pricey travel team circuit. And even more so at the oh-so-crucial pre-teen ages.
As a coach, there is scarcely the time, for one, to teach anybody anything. Our seasons were broken up into the spring and fall. Both lasted roughly two months — mid-April through mid-June and mid-September through mid-November — and somewhere between six and eight games, depending on how much opposition was available. We only had one team at our age levels, since the dropout rates from youth soccer are frightfully high once puberty hits. Opponents were scarce. But the lack of minutes wouldn’t have been quite so problematic had there been sufficient repetitions available in practice. We only practiced for an hour a week though. Typically on a Saturday morning, with the game, if there was one, taking place the next day.
So if a player showed up for all of it, which most didn’t because of other social engagements, he or she was getting two hours of soccer per week, four months out of the year. A handful of Latino players — a minority on the team — would work on technique with me after practice for another hour or so and perhaps go on to play in the park. But that constituted the sum total of anybody’s soccer activities.
So why not make the season longer and practice more frequent? Well, the summer was off-limits for school-aged children in an affluent county like ours, where summer camps and exotic vacations are the norm. And nobody seemed to want to play from December to March because of the cold weather — never mind that the rest of the world is playing regardless and jumping into the lead. There scarcely seemed to be the time for the kids to take on any other week-night activities, such was the congestion in their schedules.
The other major systemic issue was know-how. There’s little to be done about almost an entire country being plain new to the sport, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Far too many fathers with no experience with soccer at all act as coaches and have next to nothing of value to offer their players. I heard one such father decide against a substitution because, as he put “I don’t want another left-footer in the midfield.” Another kept calling players over to the sideline in the middle of the ongoing game, made them take a knee and then treated them to incongruous and ill-informed lectures on where to pass the ball that lasted several minutes.
You might argue that none of the above is relevant if a young player shows the requisite promise to be pulled into a more competitive program, where scholarships exist. Player development in any sport is a numbers game. You develop a thousand prospects in hopes that one makes it to the top. And of the 1,000 that make it to the top, a lone difference-maker at the international would constitute a nice yield.
As things stand, plenty fall through the cracks. Without the proper conditions at every level, the talent pool is drained needlessly. What makes the world’s best national teams good is that they have a handful of worthy players at every position, jostling for jobs. Only now is the USA getting to a point where it might travel to a World Cup with a squad void of glorified tourists.
The massive youth participation in soccer is perhaps this country’s biggest asset in the global game. But in some aspects, it’s also its biggest weakness.