If the United States is going to ever truly compete for the World Cup, it will be thanks to a groundswell of passionate people...a group larger and more sophisticated than today’s, working at all levels of the pyramid. This is not a knock on today’s efforts, but merely an acknowledgement that in order for U.S. Soccer to take the next steps, this group of people will need to be larger and smarter. Knowledgeable U-6 coaches, an improved pool of national team players, and savvy executives running the myriad organizations will be needed to make it all work.
One executive who should be used as an example for the next round of leaders is Kevin Payne. Kevin has devoted his life to growing soccer in the United States and has displayed leadership at all levels. He’s served on the board of the U.S. Soccer Federation, helped start D.C. United (leading them for 16 years), and elevated Major League Soccer in the mid-90s. He now leads U.S. Club Soccer, overseeing development at the youth levels.
It all started with intense passion for the sport. In an interview with Stars and Stripes FC, Kevin Payne recalled watching a replay of the 1966 World Cup Final at Wembley (a 4-2 England win over West Germany) as a moment that fueled his love for the game. Later, he got involved in the administration of his local soccer club in Vail and quickly realized he wanted a life in the sport. “I basically spent two and a half years chasing whoever I could chase to get an opportunity,” recalled Payne. He was eventually introduced to Werner Fricker, former President of the USSF, who happened to have a house in Vail. Nine months later, Payne was the National Administrator of the USSF and eventually helped bring the World Cup to the United States in 1994. Just like the 1966 World Cup in England sparked his passion, the 1994 World Cup sparked the passion in many of today’s American fans.
Following that run, Kevin was part of the founding team of Major League Soccer and brought the investor group together for D.C. United. He was the President of D.C. United for 16 years and developed what can only be regarded as a model club over that time period, winning twelve trophies during his time there.
Recently, Kevin has turned his attention to youth development. After a long career at the highest levels of the sport, this seemed like an odd decision. “The most important building block of the sport is the club,” Kevin explains. “I’d been talking a lot about ways I thought we needed to improve the environment for youth soccer players, and [U.S. Club Soccer] was an opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth was.”
U.S. Club Soccer supports 75,000 staff members, over 500,000 playing members and is continuing to grow. But Kevin says that 75% of players leave the game by the age of 13 and believes that has to do with their overall experience with the sport. Part of the problem starts with the parents:
“Parents are the ones that are actually paying for this vast undertaking that we call youth soccer. They end up having a lot of authority over what that experience looks like. I don't think there are too many parents that are sitting around the dinner table at night saying, ‘How do we create a really lousy soccer experience for our kids?’ But very often that's what they do, unintentionally.”
To educate the clubs and parents about what better soccer experience looks like, U.S. Club Soccer has started a program called Players First. “We want clubs to recognize that they have an obligation to keep every single kid involved in the game, and create a lifetime love of our sport.”
Players First appears to be a push towards a more pure view of the sport. Payne highlights some of the key questions they want to ask of their clubs:
“Do coaches have the right attitude about what kids are supposed to get out of this? Are they creating an environment in which every kid is empowered to become the best they can be, understanding that some are going to be a lot better than others? Some kids will play 24 hours a day for years and they’re never going to be good enough to play, but that doesn't mean that their soccer experience is any less important.”
Alongside a player-first focus, Kevin highlights coaching as the biggest need to get the United States back on track in terms of world soccer. “All of the countries that have been successful in re-imagining their player development process, beginning with France in the late 80s and early 90s, and then Spain and then Germany, and Belgium and Iceland—maybe as the most dramatic example—they began with the premise that if we want better players, we need better coaches.”
The USSF has started an initiative, but Kevin argues it’s still not enough:
“U.S. Soccer has begun finally to overhaul its licensing system and create more meaningful licenses that are a little more geared to the task that a coach actually has, but they've actually narrowed the pipeline so it's longer and much more expensive for coaches to get their licenses. I think they should be doing the opposite.”
The comment calls to question whether or not USSF is indeed creating programs optimized for long term player development. “We lag exponentially behind the top countries in the world when it comes to trained soccer coaches who understand how to develop players,” said Payne.
From U.S. Soccer to professional clubs to youth clubs, Kevin Payne has played a key part of the tremendous growth of soccer in this country. That experience has led him to two simple truths: create an experience where kids learn to love the game, and make sure they have the best coaching. These objectives make a ton of sense as they would grow both the soccer population and IQ of the country.
Progress will be easier said than done given the pay-to-play model driving youth development and our current investment in coaching. One of the keys to overcoming the current limitations will be passionate leaders like Kevin Payne that devote their lives to growing the game.