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How U.S. Soccer can begin to fix its broken youth system

ISI Photos-John Todd

Kyle Martino, Kevin Payne and U.S. Soccer officials all weigh in on how to unite a divided landscape.

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“Promote a more unified Youth Soccer landscape where our members—rather than fighting each other for players—work together to bring more young people into our ranks as registered players and where we focus on Youth Soccer less as a business and more as a way to develop talent on the field and nurture our next generation of young adults.”

So read the platform of Carlos Cordeiro in his successful campaign for the U.S. Soccer presidency.

Cordeiro has spent the first four months of his presidency traveling the world on behalf of the ultimately successful USA/Canada/Mexico World Cup bid. In the meantime, youth soccer has progressed from a moderate level of chaos to a full-fledged tropical storm mixed with a Nor’easter mixed with Memorial Day beach traffic.

Several clubs are pulling their girls’ teams out of the Development Academy. U.S. Youth Soccer and U.S. Club Soccer are revving up separate elite league structures, further cluttering up a sport that already requires parents to do full-fledged investigations of each club and then travel farther and farther.

More travel. More money. More problems. More confused families that wonder why they’re spending thousands of dollars and hours of travel to play teams that may or may not offer a better matchup than a team in the same county.

More families that may decide it’s not worth it. Or can’t even afford the time and money in the first place – all as soccer’s reputation and talent pool decline.

U.S. Soccer can’t fix everything from Chicago. The federation’s first attempts to step in and end several years of its laissez-faire approach resulted in a disastrous implementation of “birth-year” mandates, which at least served to united the warring factions of youth soccer into a Technical Working Group, which still exists but hasn’t met recently.

“People (in Chicago) aren’t out in the community,” U.S. Club Soccer CEO Kevin Payne says. “They don’t know what’s happening. That’s the No. 1 complaint you hear about the DA. They offered these dictums from on high, and a lot of times, they’re really unrealistic for the clubs that have to implement them.”

But it can take a few steps.

Appoint a youth soccer ‘czar’

No one can reasonably expect Cordeiro or U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn to handle youth issues every day. And Cordeiro, who on first glance has more interest in delegating authority than predecessor Sunil Gulati, has already unveiled a new organizational chart that includes youth-related “focus areas” such as talent identification, coaching education and “High Performance.”

But whose job is it to provide clarity when clubs, let alone parents, have little idea how to find their place in the befuddling youth system? Is that “talent identification,” which is split between two chief officers? Or maybe “member services,” which is under a different department entirely?

Kyle Martino, one of the candidates in this year’s U.S. Soccer presidential race, sees an immediate need to redraw the organizational chart: “USSF desperately needs to create a ‘Youth Soccer Director’ position to mitigate the market confusion plaguing the youth soccer landscape. Any semblance of a pyramid continues to collapse due the absence of a clear, collaborative vision for the marketplace. Many issues, especially U.S. Youth & U.S. Club’s battle for large fragments of the marketplace, are stymying the development of players and decreasing quality of the experience.

“Without immediate attention these problems will continue to drive cost up and players out. We should be very alarmed.”

Set national standards

Here, U.S. Soccer is indeed making moves. The federation is working on new standards and certifications. At the public Board of Directors meeting at February’s Annual General Meeting, the federation’s Ryan Mooney (since named USSF’s chief soccer officer) mentioned a new standards and certification effort. Caitlin Carducci, manager of member programs, told FourFourTwo the first stage of potential standards was shared with members in April.

But we don’t know much about what those standards entail. Even the notion of having standard terminology nationwide is daunting.

“I don’t think we will ever standardize terminology; we can’t prevent a club from calling itself ‘Elite’ or ‘Academy,’ or for a league to call themselves ‘Premier,’ ” Carducci said.

Still, the concept is to provide some clarity.

“One of our objectives is to make it easy to participate in the sport, but often, parents and players don’t know what club or program is the best fit for them,” Carducci said. “Having standards will hopefully clear up the confusion and help create a more defined player pathway within the soccer landscape.”

Negotiate some mergers

So if everyone’s meeting common standards here, then … can we merge?

You can’t get everyone on the same pyramid; this isn’t Germany. But maybe we could end up with, at most, two national pyramids that support rather than decimate their local leagues.

U.S. Youth Soccer has rolled out revamped regional leagues feeding into its national championship system, and U.S. Club Soccer has unveiled plenty of new leagues as well. In some cases, there’s a cause and effect -- the mid-Atlantic EDP switched from U.S. Club Soccer’s National Premier League to the U.S. Youth structure, prompting U.S. Club Soccer to roll out the new East Coast Soccer League.

Payne doesn’t hide the reaction: “The clubs didn’t want to leave. The clubs liked the NPL standard, which we believe is considerably higher than the alternative.”

But it’s certainly not all clubs. EDP and the ECSL have issued various press releases over the past few weeks as new clubs have signed on, and it’s clear neither league will have anything close to a monopoly.

The funny thing is that everyone’s professing the same thing on so many issues. Consider the notion of letting teams that aren’t associated with the traditional mega-clubs win their way into elite competition and showcases. Here’s Payne:

“The NPL level in the East Coast Soccer League is club-based. But certainly we realize there are lots of worthy teams in smaller clubs or those that aren’t as centralized, so we always try to provide team-based competition as well.”

Here’s Alan Schilling of EDP, which is switching from U.S. Club to U.S. Youth Soccer:

“It’s great when the results of an individual team can determine its own destiny and not where the parents moved or paid. Sometimes parents can’t afford mega-clubs, and they stay with neighborhood clubs. We believe those kids should have the opportunity to advance.”

But with the competition to form elite leagues -- in some cases, slamming the door on anyone who isn’t in the anointed group -- we end up with a viral case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Heaven help the club that doesn’t have at least one team playing outside its now-derided local league competition, where good players in the top division might not make their high school JV ahead of the “elite” leaguers who are spending more time and money on travel.

Maybe U.S. Soccer can set some standards so we know what an actual “elite” league really is. And maybe they can make sure it’s open to all, even those who’d prefer not to travel out of state every weekend.

That’s likely to be all they do.

“Our members are able to create and manage competitions consistent with our and their bylaws and policies,” Mooney said. “We see standards as being a way to align and unify the landscape. Our objective is for members to begin working together instead of U.S. Soccer being seen as the group that intervenes and interjects. We believe that aligning and unifying the entire soccer landscape, grassroots to the pros, has to be supported and believed in by members to be successful.”

Require clubs to be transparent on their websites

U.S. Soccer could set aspirational standards here. Have some basic info about your coaches and the leagues you play in? One star. A basic breakdown of where parents’ fees go? Two stars. How many kids actually make high school teams, let alone college teams? Three stars.

Speaking of high schools ...

Work with high schools to standardize the calendar and improve coaching education

One issue with leagues that span state boundaries, even when they’re not far apart: States often have different high school seasons.

The D.C. metro area might be the worst. Virginia’s public schools play high school soccer in the spring. Maryland and D.C. public schools play in the fall, along with many private schools in the area. Good luck organizing a league with teams whose players also play for high schools.

High school soccer has a lot to offer – facilities, fan interest, social importance, history. Many of the coaches are also club coaches with A licenses and vast soccer knowledge. Some aren’t.

As it stands now, scholastic soccer isn’t represented in U.S. Soccer. The groups simply aren’t part of the discussion. Why not?

Figure out the role of state associations

The United States’ boundaries weren’t drawn for convenience. Even in the comparatively small eastern states, population centers can be separated by more than 200 miles of clogged interstates or erratic rural highways -- think Arlington to Roanoke (VA), Wilmington to Asheville (NC), Atlanta to Savannah (GA) or Jacksonville to Miami.

State lines were never completely rigid -- the traditional local leagues in the D.C. metro area cross smoothly from Maryland to Virginia -- but U.S. Club Soccer has been particularly interested in giving clubs the flexibility to form leagues outside state associations and even across once-sacred regional boundaries.

U.S. Youth Soccer is starting to do the same. The new regional conferences are no longer as strictly bound by the old four-region setup, and the map is flexible.

“They’ve acknowledged that taking teams from Virginia Beach and saying you have to play Region I against Pittsburgh was really a disadvantage,” Schilling says. Now that Pittsburgh team can play a Cleveland team instead.

That’s great news for elite players’ parents in Pittsburgh. The trick now is to figure out the role of state associations. Their old roles – state leagues, State Cups and ODP – have been diluted by the new leagues, U.S. Club Soccer’s own State Cup competitions and new player-identification initiatives.

State associations won’t go away quietly. They still hold the bulk of the Youth Council’s votes in U.S. Soccer, and the Youth Council gets more than 25 percent of the vote.

That’s a long to-do list. Carlos Cordeiro and Dan Flynn probably can’t handle that themselves while they’re dealing with the 2026 World Cup logistics and various lawsuits from disaffected pro owners. But they can surely hire someone who can.