Since the United States Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, fans and pundits have spent countless hours dissecting what went wrong. This World Cup disappointment highlighted the fact that youth soccer development is broken. Too many players don’t have access to high-level coaching and competition.
While many cannot afford to play for so-called “elite” clubs, there is also a sizable group who live in areas that lack U-12 Boys Development Academy (DA) teams. I chose to focus on this age (the youngest age group in the DA league) because the early years in a player’s development are crucial. While some will reach the professional ranks without ever playing for a DA team, this is becoming increasingly uncommon.
DA teams provide top-notch coaching and play against each other in the best youth league (divided up into conferences by region) in the country. The combination of elite coaching and high-level play makes these teams some of the best in the country for player development. The map above from U.S. Soccer shows all 155 U-12 Boy’s Development Academy Clubs.
Amazingly, 21 of the 48 states in the continental U.S. do not have a single U-12 Boy’s DA club in-state or within a reasonable driving distance. These states are Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee (Nashville SC is expected to begin MLS play in 2020 and will have an academy team), Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, and Vermont.
Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and Minnesota United have U-12 teams, but they do not play in the DA League. While Delaware does not have a team, the Philadelphia Union’s team is within driving distance of Northern Delaware. New England Revolution and Columbus Crew don’t field teams.
Unsurprisingly, several sparsely populated states lack teams. The Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho will almost certainly never have U-12 DA teams. Potential teams in Louisiana and Arkansas would face lengthy travel, barring a drastic increase in the number of teams in the Deep South. Despite the obstacles preventing teams from forming in some states, in many other regions there is no clear explanation for the lack of U-12 DA teams.
New York State has 9 teams, but all of them are in close proximity to New York City. None are within a reasonable driving distance of major cities upstate like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. According to a July 1, 2016 estimate (by the U.S. Census Bureau) 12 of America’s 50 most populous cities are located in states with no U-12 DA teams.
These cities are Phoenix, Memphis (even when Nashville SC starts a team, Nashville is approximately 3 hours away from Memphis), Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Louisville, Milwaukee, Albuquerque, Tucson, Mesa, Omaha, Tulsa, and New Orleans. Surely there is a large enough player pool to form teams in these cities. I would also imagine that teams in these major cities would be profitable if run correctly.
While it’s true that in recent years few good players have come from areas without U-12 DA teams, its unlikely that these areas are entirely devoid of talent. One of the reasons no recently capped USMNT players have come from a state like West Virginia is partially due to a lack of high-level coaching at a young age.
If U.S. Soccer is serious about improving the quality of players, it must ensure that children throughout the country (and particularly in highly-populated areas) have access to DA teams. The federation should encourage existing clubs, particularly in major cities, that do not have U-12 DA teams to field teams. Additionally, Major League Soccer (MLS) should require all of its clubs to have such youth teams.
It is time to stop neglecting the development of players in states that have not produced elite players in the past. Adding more U-12 DA teams across the country may not fix issues such as pay-to-play, but it’s an important, if somewhat small, step in improving youth development.