Why underserved communities are the key to U.S. Soccer's turnaround

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ending "pay to play" in youth soccer? Everyone wants to, but the devil's in the details.

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We’ve heard it over and over since the U.S. men failed to qualify for the World Cup.

“We have 325 million people in this country! How can we not reach a World Cup?”

Granted, none of the top five nations by population made the men’s World Cup (as long as you accept figures showing Pakistan passing Brazil for fifth). USA aside, they usually don’t.

The reason is simple: Soccer doesn’t reach everyone in those countries. It doesn’t reach them as fans, and it doesn’t reach or keep all the potential players. Major youth team sports are losing players across the board, and soccer is no exception.

And that’s why reforming U.S. Soccer as a whole has to start at the youth level.

Yes, it’s a topic shrouded in mythical quick fixes. It’s easy to get on Twitter and rant that any 11 kids playing pickup soccer in a lower-income neighborhood could beat the FC Dallas academy teams. It’s also easy to say we need to get rid of “pay to play,” but few people have reasonable ideas to pay for field space or to convince all youth coaches to become volunteers. (Maybe if we had single-payer health care and universal basic income, sure, but that’s for another site.)

Getting rid of “pay to play” would require a lot of money. U.S. Soccer’s $100 million surplus, built over many years of reaching World Cups, seems small when you try to spread it among 4 million youth soccer players.

USA TODAY Sports-Robin Alam

USA TODAY Sports-Robin Alam

But while we’re waiting for a savior to pay for everything, we can do a few simple things to make soccer more accessible.

First: Cut costs. Some costs are fixed, but more money will be available for scholarships and other club needs by trimming elsewhere. Such as …

Second: Cut travel. Can we agree that we don’t need multiple national championships on top of all the college showcases, Disney trips and other far-flung frequent-flyer tournaments? Can we agree teams shouldn’t be traveling 400-600 miles for league games, as they do in the new ECNL for boys?  

Third: Have more programs in underserved communities. Here, a lot of organizations are making progress. Target has partnered with the U.S. Soccer Foundation on a $14 million program to build 100 new “soccer play spaces” by 2020. Plenty of local organizations, such as Atlanta’s Soccer in the Streets, are also getting into schools and neighborhoods.

Cutting costs and reaching out to underserved communities are the right things to do for so many reasons:

  1. Recreational, fulfilling U.S. Soccer’s mandate to promote soccer as a healthy sport for all.
  2. Promotional, building a base of players that will continue to be involved with the sport and buy tickets.
  3. Developmental, finding those players who currently don’t have a pathway to the sport.
  4. Political and ethical, demonstrating that soccer isn’t some white suburban sport.

It’s not a choice between “elite” and “recreational.” It’s a classic case of creating a rising tide to lift all boats. Get an underserved neighborhood a decent soccer field and a reasonably priced pathway to clubs, and you just might get a couple of elite players along with a lot of kids simply thrilled to have a chance to play.

And it’s not just about the men. The U.S. women are rapidly conceding ground to the rest of the world. The NWSL only has 10 teams, and yet it has massive gaps in quality and talent. Check your local soccer league to see why — division after division of boys, not so many girls.

The U.S. system can find efficiencies elsewhere as well. At the peak development age of 9 through 12, most clubs hire professional coaches. We don’t have enough good, well-trained coaches to go around, and most coaches can only take 2-3 teams at most. That leaves a lot of teams dealing with coaches with dubious expertise and horrible sideline demeanor.

Instead, why not take your best coaches — people who might be on the sideline for an elite U16 team on the weekend — and lead training, then leave the actual game coaching (which should be minimal) to trained parent volunteers?

U.S. Soccer’s laissez-faire neglect has turned youth soccer into an arms race. Unlike a lot of economic competition, this one has forced prices to go up. Clubs are competing not just for talent but for money.

When we turn that around, we just might open up youth soccer to more players and more talented players. The national teams can only benefit.

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