Even though the US Soccer presidential election cycle was only really several months long, it felt like at least a year dragged by, pulling all of us by our ankles through a muddy briar patch of every grudge and point of contention that had been brewing in the American soccer world for years. One of the biggest topics under discussion was how to reform the youth system so that more kids from more backgrounds can get into the game and actually develop into quality players to bolster our top leagues and the national team. Often under fire was the system of “pay to play,” usually referring to the top-end clubs that get high profile wins and USSF and club scouts and therefore charge thousands of dollars a year for kids as young as 12 and 13 to play.
I was able to talk to Kevin Payne, CEO of US Club Soccer, which at the end of 2017 had approximately 475,000 registered youth players and 10,000 adults. Like anyone who’s been involved with youth soccer for any substantial period of time, he was aware that the expense of the game was a problem, but thought that some of that focus should shift from examining how much parents are paying to what exactly they’re paying for.
“Part of the problem is that parents don’t know how to determine if their child is in a good soccer program or a bad one,” he said. “Right now the only metric that they have to measure a good program is, does the team win a lot? They don’t really know any other way to measure it. So there’s a lot of pressure on kids to get on teams that win a lot and then those teams, they don’t want to just win in their local markets, they want to go to tournaments and win because that’s how the club or the team attracts more players and that’s how the coaches make more money.”
Instead of being so win-focused, Payne believes youth soccer should attempt to shift to a model where kids simply enjoy the game and feel personal fulfillment in developing their skills, as well as being a place where the players are physically and emotionally safe. That doesn’t mean he disagrees club soccer is too expensive in some places. But he doesn’t think US Soccer and their much-vaunted $150 million surplus will really be able to single-handedly make a dent in the problem. Payne estimates there’s about 3.5 million players affiliated with US Soccer total. “I believe that the total spending in that universe in the cost of a year is probably somewhere around $5 billion,” he said. “So the idea that there’s going to be a single payer for that or somehow we’re no longer going to be asking parents for money, it’s just crazy.... The $150 million, even if all of the $150 million was available, that’s a drop in the bucket. And it took the federation years to accumulate that.”
Payne doesn’t think USSF’s youth development system is necessarily the best for the culture of youth soccer either. “I personally think the US Soccer pathway is too narrowly focused,” he said. “Where I differ from them is I think they should be exploring ways and devoting substantial resources to ways to much more broadly affect the youth soccer experience. Instead what they’re doing is devoting much more narrow focus to trying to identify those children that they think are the most promising at very young ages. At ages, frankly, where you can’t predict which child is going to become the superior athlete. And then take them out of the general youth soccer environment and put them into, for instance, a development academy environment, where they hope it’s better.”
USSF now has development academies for both boys and girls, but Payne was skeptical of their ability to actually provide an overall good playing environment. “The biggest complaint about development academies right now is the environment is extremely sterile,” he said. “They don’t play many of their neighbors. They travel too far to play games. The children travel too far in many cases to attend practices. It’s not at all uncommon in the academy for kids to routinely travel eight hours, nine hours round trip to play an hour and a half soccer game.”
For the lower levels, Payne thinks that the development academy is already burning kids out, as kids are essentially told they’re in our out at impressionable ages. And, he added, “There is not one shred of evidence anywhere that anybody can predict the eventual athletic achievement level of a kid that’s 10 or 11 years old.”
Payne was also skeptical that USSF’s DA is entirely optimal on the girls’ side, citing the existence of Elite Clubs National League as already providing the higher level of competition that the girls’ game needed.
“I think that the way the Girls’ DA was rolled out was very poorly handled,” he said. “I’ve seen...where ECNL is basically saying to their liaison with the federation, who at the time was Jill Ellis, who’s now the national team coach, and they’re basically saying, any changes that you’d like us to make, just let us know.... And the general response from US Soccer was no, you’re doing a good job, you don’t need to impose those things on the way you’re doing things, you’re doing fine. And then all of a sudden, kind of out of nowhere, they basically say, oh no, this isn’t an appropriate platform anymore and we need to improve it. Interestingly they anointed a bunch of clubs that have never even had girls’ teams, including some MLS academies.... And what we’ve got right now is instead of one very strong platform to provide high level competition for aspiring female players, we have two watered down platforms.”
Payne claimed that about 75% of kids drop out of soccer by age 13. (A National Alliance for Youth Sports poll said that about 70% of kids drop out of all youth sports by age 13.) He said both boys and girls quit because they don’t feel a sense of self-worth at their clubs; they want to contribute but are consistently told they aren’t good enough, which takes the fun out of the game. “If we’re losing three out of every four kids that leaves before they’re 13 years old, just numerically that tells you we have lost out on some Landon Donovans or Mia Hamms. They just left our sport,” Payne said.
So where are some areas where youth soccer programs should focus their resources? “I think we have shortages at every level of coaching,” said Payne. He commended USSF for trying to scale up the number of entry- or low-level coaches, but wants the federation to go further. That means better access to the A, B, C, and D licenses; the people pursuing those levels tend to be more serious about the game and teaching players long term.
“For many years our coaching schools didn’t differentiate between the coach who needed to be educated how to train players and the coach who needed to be educated how to win soccer matches,” said Payne. “So, say, three years ago, if you’d gone to an A license, you might find in that same course an MLS coach and somebody that was coaching a U12 team in their community.” That’s slowly changing; for example, USSF now offers a pro license. But Payne wants the change to happen faster at all levels.
“I think where we still are very behind the most sophisticated nations is understanding the difference between coaching to get results on the field and coaching to get results in how the players are developed,” he said. “And in sophisticated soccer countries like Argentina or Brazil or Spain or Germany, those are two completely different skill sets. The guys or women who coach players to try to make them better for a living are very respected…. The problem here is, if you talk to the majority of youth soccer coaches, they kind of think that their job is the same as Bill Belichick’s job. Their job is to go out and win soccer games. In most cases in youth soccer that’s not what it should be. It should be about, are you finding a way to make sure that every single player in your group can become the best player that he or she can be.”
Payne was adamant that people who have a problem with the way the youth system is organized or how these organizations voted in the US Soccer presidential election can easily get involved. “You start out trying to help your local adult soccer club, or your local youth soccer club if you’re a parent,” he said. “That’s where you start out. You learn about all of the complexities that make this difficult. Field availability, referee availability, coach training. You learn about those things on a local level, you put your time in....”
“It’s not a high barrier, especially if you come through the youth side. There’s more people on the adult side who’ve been involved for a much longer period of time and so it might be a little harder to move up through the adult side, but even on the adult side, if you really want to put the time in, if you’re smart and you’re interested and you’re engaged enough, you can end up having real influence in a local soccer club, and then a local soccer league, and then your state association, and maybe the national association.”
It’s a time of upheaval right now and fans and USSF members will undoubtedly be watching new president Carlos Cordeiro very closely to see what kind of tone he sets from the top down. Meanwhile, Payne’s suggestion that fans dissatisfied with the state of youth soccer get involved in the game is a good one. You might not be casting your vote for the next USSF president right away, but maybe you’ll be keeping that 11 or 12 year old in your local program from quitting.