Solving the income gap in US soccer

“We believe that…” This was the expression that caught on this past summer both in the United States and throughout the world. The expectation that no matter what this team was going to win, no matter what sort of situation they faced.

But belief and reality are two very different things and as USA supporters begin to follow the team more closely it becomes more apparent the flaws in our structure. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships, where the United States only drew against Guatemala and were humiliated by Panama. This trend is not new; the United States has never won the CONCACAF U-20 Championships and were unable to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

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The pattern of failure at the youth level leaves plenty of questions and not enough answers. Why does the United States do so poorly at the youth levels? Why can’t the United States break through and have a handful of dominant generations? It certainly is not a matter of resources. Over the past 20 years, the United States Soccer Federation, MLS, and private institutions have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to find, develop, and train the next great soccer player.

So why are we still being beat by Panama?

The issue seems to be about the money or the perceived need of it. To even have a chance at being recognized in the United States one must have the means to afford the different equipment, camps, leagues, and private trainers. Soccer in the United States is not built on the streets or the industrial parks; it was built in the boardroom.

Two weeks ago, in Jamaica, we saw the difference. An American side accustomed to playing in certain conditions and certain environments were beaten handily by Panamanian side that is without a golden generation, but played with heart and passion and desire. They didn’t believe that they could win, they knew it.

Although it is not always about economics, sometimes it is.  For as much as soccer officials here in the United States try to make this game a game of inclusion, on the youth levels it is a game of exclusion.

Take, for example, the Olympic Development Program which is part of the U.S. Soccer Youth academy program. It is a program that is set up in each state and the District of Columbia and is meant to

identify players of the highest caliber on a continuing and consistent basis, which will lead to increased success for the U.S. National Teams in the international arena.

If yours truly had a kid that wanted to play on the Maryland Youth Soccer Association ODP travel team, the cost would total anywhere between $652 and $1040 a year. This does also not include the price of equipment, travel to and from matches, or additional tournaments.

Football camps are not cheap either. While famous players, coaches, and teams for years have been coming to the United States to sell their brands on people wanting to learn the “insert great player or team name” their intention is to sell, not to teach. Clubs like Arsenal ($700-$1300 for four day camp) and F.C. Barcelona ($435-899) have been running these ‘deals’ for years yet do not offer deals for lower income families.

While it is certainly within the rights of clubs and players to run these camps, US Soccer does itself a disservice by believing that these camps and private leagues are the best ways to identify players. These are players who are drilled into a system at an early age and not given a chance to develop the capability to play the beautiful game.

The great equalizer in US Soccer has for decades been the college system. Although its rules can be a bit odd and the level of play is not great, the training and coaching at the top levels is usually very good because of the amount resources that are allocated to college sports in the United States. Players like Clint Dempsey, John Harkes, Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas and many other US Men’s National Team players have used college scholarships to help push them not only improve as players but to climb the economic ladder. They retained that hunger and desire to become a professional footballer when not everything is given to you.

So the question going forward is how does US Soccer change this perception that only those that can afford to pay for the game can play the game? Having additional scholarships for players coming from lower income families is a start. If lower income families are given some assistance to help cover the costs of some of these camps then less players will not be priced out of the game.

US Soccer seems to agree on this notion. In December, the USSF announced that it will be conducting a full audit on its entire program from coaching to player development to greater ties with the NCAA and club soccer. One of the major tenets of this directive will be the creation of scholarships for players coming from lower income families so that they can afford top-level training and coaching.

Working with the Hispanic population would also help. For years US Soccer has lost out on quality players to the likes of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador because these countries actively scout in the Latino community here in the United States. Although not every player would be able to suit up for the Stars and Stripes, there needs to be greater engagement on the part of the USSF with the Latino community.

The U.S. U-20s were very fortunate in their last 4 matches to qualify for the 2015 U-20 World Cup. But after 20 years being fortunate is not good enough. If this country is to make the next step as a footballing power it needs to actively engage, scout, and train not just the players that can afford new cleats that can be found online in this football cleats review and also brand new balls. U.S. Soccer needs to engage, scout, train, and assist every player that shows passion, desire, and the ability to play the beautiful game.


The Author

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS:

11 thoughts on “Solving the income gap in US soccer

  1. I agree that some of the problem relates to the “pay to play,” but it’s more than that. Even the “pay” programs have very inconsistent coaching and programs. It’s basically impossible to find a good program for kids even if you are able to pay. It’s has said that most skills become ingrained between 8 and 12, so what are we to do? Move to Europe? Even the MLS sponsored kids programs in our area doesn’t have high quality coaching. Sure they do drills, but without understanding the objective of the drills they are doing and without a real plan. I actually think the kids in Hispanic communities, and Haitian communities, etc., etc., any immigrant community probably get better coaching from their parents or people in the community than the “native born” US players who aren’t connected to the immigrant communities and because they play as part of their lives and not just at practice and weekend matches. Also, if soccer is a way up, there will be more of a hunger (see the NBA . . .). Kids from upper middle and upper class communities can say “oh, soccer or maybe I’ll be a doctor instead . . ..

  2. I think it’s ALL about the money thing.

    I think MLS academies, with all the cash they spend on facilities and the like, should be out searching – yearning – for soccer-first kids from lower-income backgrounds. You bet they’d want to join in. They’re hungry, have the American work ethic but also have the creativity and class that is needed to become great.

  3. Awesome post! In America we produce one mega soccer star like Landon every 15 years or so. This is due to U.S. coaches at all levels of our youth system in experience with identifying talent at an early age. Our coaches simply ado not have the level of training and sophistication in spotting talent so those mega talent do not slip through the cracks of our youth soccer system. I don’t know if there is anything that one person can due to improve this?

  4. Very interesting debate! As a Latin American coach I have worked in both South America and the USA and I believe there is no main reason for the gap in American youth performance compared to other countries, as there is no magic formula or secrets to having outstanding game level.
    The best youth soccer nations like Argentina and Brazil have at the base of their structure many unqualified coaches that work with minimum conditions and yet are able to achieve great results, some times thanks to those circumstances but mostly despite them. In do not think money is the key issue although it definitely helps to have resources and structured projects. The sum of the factors with special consideration to the perception of the game can make a difference. In my opinion when academies, coaches, parents and even players start seeing soccer as much more than just an extracurricular activity the mentality towards the game should have a definite effect on developing game intelligence and enhancing player development.

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