As per FIFA’s last Big Count, around 24 million Americans were playing football in 2006 and 30 percent of American households contained someone playing the game.
There are somewhere around 4.2 million players registered with US Soccer, compared to 2014’s tally of just 3 million.
And during recent times, soccer has arguably become the second most popular participation sport in the States, behind baseball, even though its cultural imprint remains significantly smaller than the National Basketball Association (NBA) or the National Football League (NFL).
While the numbers suggest that the spike in popularity is genuine, there is still great scope for improvement – and specifically so in respect of how clubs in the States develop individual talent.
The big breakthrough in the US will come when the States produces players of European Champions League standard in good numbers – or a genuinely world class star.
Such is the geographic scale and scope of America that soccer remains more popular in some areas than in others. It is played by players of different class, gender and age profiles, throughout the 50 states.
And notwithstanding the packed, colourful stadia of Major League Soccer (MLS), US soccer has more appeal too as a ‘grass-roots’ participation sport rather than as a TV spectacle or a professional game, unlike in Europe.
These factors, alongside the way things are done in the dominant US sports, have all combined to shape the unique culture of the game there.
The differences are most stark in terms of youth development. While clubs everywhere will always aim to win games, there’s an excessive emphasis on winning in American youth soccer programs.
Thanks to the pay for play service model, coaches and teams alike have a primary success measure of winning and they pursue it to the detriment of long term player development.
More wins and a successful club means, more players, more teams and more profit. A coach’s focus is restricted to creating players who are primed to ‘win’ – today. Everything else is secondary.
Thankfully there is an increasing awareness of the problems – even if the solutions are bitterly fought over by those with skin in the game.
Prep4Pro’s John Roach says:
In the US, they’ve set up a lot of technical clinics, something that doesn’t happen too often in Europe. Most kids train with their primary club but also with fee for service additional coach or clinics as a personal skills development add on.
It’s all about playing for the best team in the best club at all times, the competition is fierce and political. The normal comprehensive player development we see in Europe isn’t seen here where players and parents alike become pawns in political games – Generally to the detriment of the kid.
Roach is a former Celtic Youth, Partick Thistle and Ayr United player who has extensive knowledge of the American soccer scene gained as a player, coach and manager over the last 20 years since making his home in Virginia.
He currently manages the members-owned amateur club Partizan Richmond and his Talent ID and development initiative program called Prep4Pro, strives to bring “European experience to the US and provide a pathway to the pro game for American players”.
When I was a kid back in Scotland, I used to go down the park with my friends and play four hours a day. That’s how you learn how to play football.
This overly organised way is not going to help American football in the long run. If a kid’s parents don’t pay or do not drop off the kid at the academy, he won’t be able to play.
More importantly the player isn’t getting a true understanding of how things work at the professional level or any guidance on next steps or even what it would take to get to that level.
Prep4Pro aims to fill that gap in information, education, exposure and opportunity with their annual residential program.
Says John, emphasising the financial and social gap that Prep4Pro hopes to plug:
So, we aim to bring European experience and exposure to the United States. There is a visible gap between players aspiring to join the American pro ranks and the players plying their trade in Europe.
We have built this program, not to make money but, to identify and help players. We see our job as helping the player get to the next level by providing honest unabridged feedback and the education of what being a pro means on and off the field.
We have capped the number of players we will look at and ensure that any costs are directed toward expenses – we cover the players’ training kit and accommodation as part of the fee.
To be clear, this is about the player and his career, not about a club, agent or a coach.
The Prep4Pro course is backed by some serious names. The ex-Aberdeen, Manchester United and Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton, Stuart Taylor, First Team Coach of Wolverhampton Wanderers and the former Celtic player, Dundee FC and now East Fife boss Barry Smith and supporting staff with big names on their CVs – Wales and Scotland U21s, The US national side amongst others.
Prep4Pro’s network extends to South America and Eastern Europe, The UK, Spain, France and most territories in between.
Even globally, the football community is extremely small and most clubs, indeed most football people, are only one or two calls between contacts away. The nomadic nature of the football life ensures that connections occur regularly as players and coaches paths cross professionally – and often in the most unexpected circumstances.
In short, John Roach says:
If you’re good enough, there will be opportunities to develop your talent and clubs waiting to give you a contract.
And it seems that at least one rival organisation in the form of the combines (pro trials) business Soccerviza are also addressing the issue of the prohibitive cost for US players of getting themselves assessed in this fee to play culture.
SoccerViza host regional ID camps that any player can attend for $250 with with assisted places for the hottest prospects.
This will allow a broader range of players to be able to receive an opportunity to chase their dreams.
Founder and CEO Joe Funicello says:
We’ve been planning for a while on a way to open up SoccerViza’s services to more players,”
I know how hard it can be for players to find the finances to travel and participate in combines. I’ve been there before getting my career going myself, and see it every day from the business side now, and it kills me when a player with so much potential can’t come to a combine due to finances.
I started SoccerViza to help the players who never got a chance, who were overlooked for whatever reason. This new format will help everyone get a chance.
By keeping the ID camps and showcases restricted to regions, travel costs for players will be kept low, helping them to save more money beyond just the lower price for the combine itself.
In addition, the best players are also selected to attend their Elite Showcase Combine in Danbury, Connecticut three weeks later for free.
Sixty players selected from SoccerViza’s three East Coast ID camps in the Elite Showcase Combine then play in front of professional coaches looking to sign players.
Though most football fans could name the small sample of American players that have enjoyed success playing Europe in the past, despite the millions playing the game at home, recent high profile successes suggest that the tide might turn and that a US invasion into Europe is indeed possible.
Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Fabian Johnson at Borussia Monchengladbach, Timothy Chandler at Eintracht Frankfurt and John Anthony Brooks at Hertha Berlin prove that things are undergoing a radical shift from the era when the quartet of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey by-passed College soccer to become the most recognisable American players in Europe.
And getting players as early as possible is a key factor in bridging the football education gap US players’ suffer relative to their counterparts in Europe.
Scout and founder of the website www.howtowatchfootball.co.uk Greg Gordon says:
Just at the point where a British player is ratcheting things up to get loan games or fight for a first team place at their club, an American boy sees their momentum dissipated within college soccer.
I can think of one player from San Diego in particular. He was studying at University here having been on trial at Celtic. But he was too old for U20s football and wasn’t capable of competing at their first team level.
This should have been a wake up call to him but he lacked any sense of urgency to make anything of a trial opportunity I got him. His attitude was that he had time on his side, but for a young footballer even one year can be equivalent to four to five years in a conventional career.
That ‘finishing school’, sharpening players focus, is vital and both Prep4Pro and Soccerviza have good people on board that know the game and can communicate what’s required.
Prep4Pro’s John Roach says:
Players go through different levels of training, from playing at the youth level, college football and the senior level for the clubs.
But, there’s a disconnect in that. Little is done to continue the alignment between playing football at the local and national level.
What we want to do is help good players, prepare while in college and provide them a pathway to the professional ranks when they graduate. We are also there for players that slipped through the net after the club level and for whatever reason didn’t make it onto the collegiate platform.
Jim Leighton, Barry Smith and Stuart Taylor have been at the highest levels as players and coaches in their careers, they know what it is like, what’s required and whether or not a player has what it takes and at what level.
Sometimes what people perceive as their level isn’t always where they are and they would be better served by focusing on another career path.
We take the player for training for up to two weeks. Once the observation period ends, the hopefuls are told whether or not they’re good enough to progress. From there they can go on to make an informed decision about what to do next with their lives.
If they’re good enough we’ll look to get them placed at clubs within our network – right in time for the start of European preseason in July.
But that objective assessment that John calls ‘typical Scottish honesty’ starts right at the outset of the Prep4Pro program.
By evaluating players at application form stage, Prep4Pro lets players know whether or not they have got what it takes raw talent-wise, to play the game at a good level.
This isn’t the usual “American fee for service model” of coaching and evaluating players, where the focus is on numbers and quantity to generate fees first and developing players secondarily.
So, would-be players are urged to apply in the first instance – to see if they make the first cut.
We’ll tell them if they’ve made that cut. Don’t spend your money. Don’t come up. It’s a simple, honest principle.
In an American scene bedevilled by ‘pay to play’ and the out of step agendas of coaches and parents, John Roach’s Prep4Pro program promises some much-needed clarity.
As a former player I understand you are looking for some key things when you are starting out. You are looking for consistency in how you are coached and managed.
You are looking for a fair and realistic assessment of your ability and potential. Lastly, you are looking for an opportunity to make your way in the game at the best level you can.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Prep4Pro can give you.