Guest Column

Less travel soccer, more intramural soccer

PSP reader Steve Hann has contributed the following guest column about the dysfunction he sees within youth soccer resulting from pushing kids into travel soccer programs. Steve was a player for 13 years, including being named to the Delco Select team in 1990. He has coached intramural soccer and worked as a referee for ten years and holds a USSF Grade E coaching certificate and Grade 8 FIFA Referee certificate. Since 2013, he has volunteered two days a week with the Chester-Upland Soccer for Success after school program. Last May, Hann contributed a guest column on the need to expand recreational soccer programs. 

There are many conversations going on within American soccer today. One of the most important is the mess that is the current youth system in America. One would be hard pressed to name another sport with such a fractured system of youth development outside of the structured youth national teams.

Work must be done to make the system whole and less of a pay-to-play model.

Identifying the issues

A lot has happened to soccer in EPYSA since my last game in DELCO back in 1990.

First, back then, the best players played for their high school team.

Second, high school teams played together for DELCO as well as at the school, meaning, the teams were playing together for years, both in travel soccer, and with the high school team.

Third is that to play travel soccer today it is assured that you will have to travel to at least two or three games with over an hour commute one way to the game.

That never happened back when I was playing. Today you will not find the best players playing together growing up, nor will you usually see them playing on their high school soccer team because they are a part of some academy somewhere. This is not to say that what happens today is worse, or better, but it is different from what I grew up knowing.

Varsity games for Central League soccer during my days in high school were played in front of filled stadiums of students. The quality of the games was among the best you could find for amateur high school sports because the best players were involved. Anyone who was able to watch Jason Luzak play his high school career out under Coach Barr witnessed something amazing. He was but one of many standout players to pass through Central League soccer High School games back during that era.

Today, many of the best players are playing with an academy and that has hurt the level of play at the high school level. So much so that when I went to watch the District Playoff game at Strath Haven High School in the fall of 2013, there were less than 200 people there, and probably closer to 100 than 200. Such low numbers are a sign of a drop in the level of play and interest because it is not a good brand of soccer. You can try to dispute that claim and there are valid arguments against it, but frankly, I was not impressed with the quality of soccer displayed watching Central League games this year.

The last few years I have spent watching both DELCO and Philadelphia Area Girls Soccer (PAGS) games, along with Central League (boys and girls) games. The conclusion from watching all these games is that the quality of soccer has gone backwards because the best kids are filtered into academies. This forces kids who are not ready to play travel ball into the travel ecosystem and hurts their development.

The past two years I have been working with the oldest intramural group at Nether Providence Athletic Association SC (NPAA SC) in Wallingford and I’m often asked if kids are ready to move up to travel soccer. I volunteer my time, so I preface the following by first noting what I’m about to say is solely my own opinion and not that of anyone with any organization with which I am affiliated: Travel soccer costs 10 times more than intramural soccer, and to be candid, it is not worth 10 times more than intramural soccer.

Where’s the fun?

Some of you might be at the point where you are asking yourself: “What is he getting at with all this then versus now stuff?” Or, “Where is this going?”

My point is that kids shouldn’t be rushed into travel ball at age 8, 9, or 10. Heck, even 11, or 12 is too young for me. Just because the academy groups gobble up the most talented younger players, there is no reason to try to fill the void by promoting kids to travel programs who are not yet skilled enough to benefit from a higher level of play.

After spending time refereeing games during the 2012-2013 season I can attest that the level of play for regular travel ball is generally bad.

Another glaring issue with travel ball is loaded teams that should not be in the division. Just go look at the results page from the DELCO or PAGS sites and you will see a lot of disparity in the divisions. Is it any wonder kids are dropping out like flies over ammonia fumes at ages 12, 13, and 14?

After starting travel soccer at age 9, spending hours upon hours having to go to serious training sessions, and spending four years of driving hours to games in other states, the game simply stops being fun.

The travel soccer ecosystem is out of balance

To be clear, the academy system is the development system for our most talented youth soccer players. This discussion is about what happens to all everyone else when the best kids stop playing travel ball and for their high school teams. The issue of concern here is the entire ecosystem outside of those best players.

The number of articles covering the topic of kids leaving organized sports between ages 12 through 14 is expansive. Yet few cover the fact that kids are being rushed too quickly into a travel system that is failing to adequately improve the level of play of these kids.

Why is there U8, U9, or U10 travel soccer? These kids belong in intramural soccer. There is no way to be clearer about how out of whack things are today: There needs to be less travel teams and more intramural teams.

The problems created by all of these extra teams are numerous. There are not enough good coaches. There are not enough good referees. And there are not enough teams to keep kids from having to travel an hour or more to a game on Saturday or Sunday.

The solution has been the pay to play model, which shuts out many kids who cannot be seen to get a scholarship to play at one of the expensive clubs with better coaches when their families can’t afford the costs on their own. Intramural should be bigger than travel soccer. There should be more kids playing intramural soccer at ages 9 through 12 than in travel soccer. Clubs should be spending less on travel teams and more on intramural programs.

After spending a couple of years watching the level of play without the academy players it is obvious that something within the ecosystem is not working. The solution that should be obvious is to push fewer kids into travel and keep them at intramural for longer. I assert that a kid who plays intramural soccer until age 12 and then goes into travel soccer is not going to burn out of travel soccer by age 14. That might sound silly but it is something I promise to be true. It is very easy for a kid to want to quit by age 13 after seeing four years of travel soccer.

I understand if some of you disagree and that is only natural; never is there universal agreement on any topic.

But I ask you to consider this: Would more intramural and less travel keep kids in the game longer? Would it extend their travel careers and improve the level or play eventually at the high school level again?

With the advent of academies there will never be another Jason Luzak playing soccer for a high school team in the Central League. But that does not mean that the varsity teams should be playing to empty stadiums, or that the level of play cannot improve.

Stop pushing kids into travel soccer

The pay-to-play model is a failure. The move to push kids who are not ready for travel ball into travel too soon is a failure. The reduction in the numbers of kids playing intramural soccer is bad for their overall development. There is a very simply fix to this environment: Stop pushing kids into travel, reduce the number of divisions, and stop having kids travel for over an hour in one direction for a game.

Look at the PAGS website and the number of teams above the age of fourteen. Do the same thing for the DELCO website. There aren’t a lot, and this is a big problem. My solution is simple: More local soccer that allows kids to try things and fail without the pressure of travel soccer, and less travel soccer that burns kids out through the lack of great coaching, poor referees, and an awful travel schedule.

Many kids want to keep playing but do not have the time or energy to put into a travel soccer season.  Not to mention the lack of teams for older kids from ages fourteen to eighteen.

The fracture in the soccer ecosystem created by academies working with our most talented players is a fixable problem. The resulting push of kids into travel soccer that are not ready to be there is part of what is creating the exodus of players leaving the game at 12, 13, and 14.

Why not take a chance and try something different by keeping kids at intramural soccer longer, which in turn will extend their travel career?

Perhaps other clubs out there will consider doing the same.


  1. I think too many kids are playing travel soccer too – matter of fact travel soccer should be destroyed totally IMO – but it’s our model…. So
    Does that mean focused kids with strong skill sets shouldn’t be playing at the highest level? Nope. One travel team per age group with only the best players the rest play IM- where kids are actually oh my God, demoted off the best team because someone is better. Too many kids on C team travel – what the hell is C travel team soccer?
    Oh I could go on and on.

    • How about this.
      each kid on the ONE travel team per age group per club earns his or her spot every season, unlike most clubs today where the A team is set and seldom ever changes- this generates the need to improve and stay focused if travel is what matters to the player. Too many ten year olds on the “A” travel team have a skill set that stops improving…..
      ….then up to the age of 12 instead of kids spending 2 practices a week at 90 minutes from U9-U12, IMO generally wasting their time touching the ball say 15 times if they are lucky- also generally by mom/dad coaches who have little real knowledge then instead spend that time playing proctored 3 and 4 aside round robin free play. In this round robin proctored free play, the “A” travel kids also play along with their very specific team training which does not focus on ball touches but tactics and team and facilitating the understanding of the game that occurs in the SSG pick up games.
      See in America, the US governing body is convinced the game is the best teacher, which I vehemently disagree with, teachers are the best teachers– but if that is the philosophy we’re stuck with- then we HAVE TO CREATE the conditions that allow the game to teach – and having 7 year olds and 8 year olds on ‘full’ fields with 7 players doesn’t generate the 2v1 3v1 2v2 problems near often enough to allow the game to teach and allow the responses to become second nature- so we have grossly unprepared kids playing the game. Why are Dutch kids and Spanish kids so good? Cause they understand the solutions to the problems generated in SSG- our kids do not.

      What’s worse, these kids and parents are then fooled into thinking if they pay $125 every 7 weeks from a’teacher’ at some of the pay to play soccer schools that we see everywhere now, they will learn how to play the game. The game is the best teacher if and only if we generate the correct conditions and travel absolutely poops all over that.

      • Like you said dude, in Europe…the best coaches are with the academy kids. It is a highly regarded job….teaching the little ones. Here parents, clinic coaches, and dudes who try to make money with their foreign accent….teach our kids to play!

      • How bout this………….you have 20 kids at each age group……..each year you keep the best 10 and release the 10 that haven’t kept pace. That’s what Barca does. You keep a solid core around but your always bringing in talent.

  2. It really depends on the intramural program and the kid .You don’t have to go farther then the Haverford School or Shipley to still see academy level soccer in high school and if the intramural program is ran by a soccer club like NPAA as opposed to just town soccer where the coach is a mom screaming kick the ball , kick it . Cause if he plays in that environment until he is 12 then he will never be ready for high school soccer and then the level of division 2 and 3 college soccer will be hideous .My kid played for NPAA and now 1776 as well as ODP and ODP region 1 and at 17 I can’t keep him off the field . No burnout slightly .

    • Haveford School, Shipley, LaSalle, Father Judge…….while they play better footy……they are still nowhere near academy level. Not even close. Even though a few will come out of the academy to play for them, its still a huge difference. Between the Union, Continental, PDA, NJS04, and Red Bull………at 14,16, and 18. You just took the best 150 ballers out high school. That can never be made up. My entire HS team played for FC Delco……..and we were awesome. We laugh now because none of us would have been allowed to play HS ball.

      • The birth of the DA also killed ODP…….not even close to what it used to be.

      • That’s probably a good thing though- ODP needs an air freshener in the car to help get the stench out. ODP is a big part of the MNT problem.

      • your right, but growing up it was the only way to get the best of the best together. Not a good model….but fun memories!

      • My sons ODP team beat continental academy team 5 to 2 last year .

    • Believe it or not, after my generation, and then the generation after us (think high school graduates after 1995), even those small towns now have capable coaches if a precedent is set as to how to run a system.

      Part of the issue is – there are so many ways to do the same thing – and the pay to play model has created the need for ‘differentiation’, or, 100 companies doing the same thing a little differently.

      If we just set up a simple model that could me mimiced quite easily then the capable coaches who do exist in smaller areas could just implement it, without trying to create another new program that is just a little bit different.

      There are a lot of great players in the middle of the state of PA who come from small programs. It isn’t the small program, or lack of coaching, we have enough coaches, but they are spread too thin. The best coaches should be overseeing a group of 30 to 40 kids with up to 4 sub coaches to split the kids into smaller groups for drills. Then the best coaches could control the system and eliminate some of the effect of bad coaching by oversaturation of travel teams.

      What is best is a carefree model for young kids that shows them skills but also allows them the ability to test those skills in game situations. I have seen a lot of players will individual skill who are awful teammates because they just do not see passing lanes to support their teammates, or are ball hogs and think they can just dribble through the entire other team, or just never pass.

      If more people talk about it and more people start doing it, then it will start to happen. The only way to change things is to start doing something and tweak it until it works and then talk about it everywhere that you can to try to get others to give it a try as well.

      Change is inevitable, which change occurs is where we have a say in the matter.

      • Yes this is all about national identity. Futbol philosophy that starts at age 5 and extends to the highest levels of MLS and USNT.
        Any difficulties the game has stateside are relative to identity issues.
        One has to look no further than Brain and Gary Kleiben to understand this and realize its true value.

  3. Somethings I can agree with you here, others I respectfully disagree. First your right, the level of play in clubs and high schools outside of the USSDA is pretty rugged. The implementation of the academy system has watered down the rest of youth soccer. This was so apparent during this years high school season that people really are starting to face up to the reality……that the advent of the academy system was the death of high school ball. This year, as you stated Steve, was quite painful to watch. The clubs outside of the DA, with the exception of a few like LVU, are equally painful to watch. It leads me to think that the coaching at this level is extremely lacking. I’m a FC DELCO alum too….and we all played HS ball. The big clubs across the country that we squared of against in regionals and nationals like Vardar, Scott Gallegher, and Chicago Magic….all became academies. This is why I said in a previous post that the DA was a way for the national old boys network to get paid.
    Where I disagree Steve, if kids are starting serious ball at 12 as you suggest, they are so behind the curve they will never develop properly. If your suggesting kids play more street ball, I could agree with that….but thats a cultural transition that needs to happen….it can’t be forced. I would take the opposite approach and expand the academy system further and start it younger. U-14 is too old to start proper development….U-10 to U-12 is huge. Countries a lot smaller than ours have twice the number of academies and they start at U-8!

    • Good argument sir, I would be okay too with expanding the academy system, which flys in the face of my argument above, but it would have to be done right and I have concerns whether that would happen. We have a real coaching deficiency problem stateside IMO.
      My argument tries to build/generate/petrie dish the free play idea the author tends to champion. What I am sure of is the current model is poop- did I say poop again. Shit, must be with my young children too much.

    • The brand of ball that kids get from me is completely based on smaller sided games with a ‘street’ ball component.

      I even have the kids make their own teams some weeks because I do not have set teams for my age group.

  4. My sons club team beat fc delco 7 to 2 and his ODP team beat them 6 to 2 . Only the top academy teams are elite the bottom ones are equivalent or less then the top club teams . I mean hell Baltimore Celtic played a decent game against the US u 17 national team .ODP boys teams are a lot of the FC continental and lehigh valley national league kids and they can compete with the lower and middle of the pack academy teams .

    • Continental is pretty much the bottom dwellers in every age group. Baltimore Celtic has all the Bays ballers that left with the McDonough Coach………..they flame everyone! Notice that the Bays are pretty much bottom feeders now too. Like I said, there are a few exceptions…..LVU, Balt. Celtic, Fullerton Rangers(CA)…… but really, few and far between though. I’ve watched academies scrimmage non academy sides, the academies usually play numbers 20-30 in those matches because they don’t get a whole lot of time in the DA. Now, if you told me the best club players are equivalent to numbers 20-30 on an academy side……I hear that.

      • but really, what is that saying? That numbers 20-30 are interchangeable with the best club kids……which just means an overload of mediocre/average players. Numbers 20-30 are the kids strung along for the $$$$$$$$$$.

      • Yes Yes and Yes. It is a challenge to put a kid, or one with a high skill set in the right environment locally.
        I like SPD. They have a local chapter trains out of YSC to the parent club in NY-with quality coaching. I believe they just rent the space and have no affiliation.
        LVU is high quality but a stretch to reach. Penn Legacy in West Chester? who knows. What others I am missing? Not to sure about central jersey.
        I watched some 10 and 11 year old FC Continental teams at their annual Delco Cup and was really quite unimpressed. Again, each coach coaches their own way- no continuity from what I saw. One team couldn’t possess the ball to save their lives another team was trying but holy hell. Another was a step away from kick and chase with really marginal skill set players.
        truth be told if you have a 6 7 or 8 year old around the greater Philly area, LMSC has the best program I’ve seen- you just have to be prepared to move on from it as it is not a professional development model— yet.

  5. The problem is that US youth soccer, as it appears in travel programs, has a primary goal of winning, rather than development. Development models allow kids to focus on technique early, and teach tactics later. Development can focus on the possession and its attendant technique, while winning has to focus on field position, and athleticism. Even the comments about me show a focus on winning, and of course, everyone wants to win. But for our nation to develop in soccer, the kids need to hear the parents and coaches say, nice skills, keep working on them, not, in some form or other, “WIN!”
    Intramural soccer is a situation where the emphasis on winning is dropped. However, we need our best to keep playing with the best.
    Regarding high school soccer, the DAs have hurt quality, but high school came to be seen as limiting for over all development by people who cared about the best players’ development. In Pennsylvania, PIAA limits the official season to basically just September and October, with state playoffs launching in early November. PIAA governs all Pennsylvania high school sports, and has rules to allow kids to play three sports and still succeed in school. School is more important, but for that one in 10,000 soccer player, soccer is more important while they still have their youth. DAs are good for US soccer. HS soccer is not as good, and that is fine. I still love it.

    • Josh, a couple things. First, check out an article in last month’s NSCAA magazine titled “playing v competing”. While development is crucial, what are we sacrificing? It basically states that we are emphasizing development just a little too much. I hear a lot of parents say ” we lost today but we’re the far better team……we possessed the ball the whole match…but the other team just kicked it long and caught us three times”. To much development and not figuring out how to open up a match…….and win. Is the academy a step in the right direction, absolutely. Second, high school soccer brought it on themselves. Three matches in a week is insane and dangerous. They need Fifa sub rules……not free weeling substitutions. Some HS coaches have better pedigree and cv’s than coaches in the academy. It’s just they’re hamstrung by rules and a short season. Don’t be fooled by people caring about development. That’s used as a catch phrase for 60 clubs around the country to get paid. Follow the $$$$$$. Even as a say this…….I still think the DA is good thing. I just think 13 and 14 is way too old to start serious development.

    • I know many of the MLS academies are free, but not the clubs in the DA. Do you know of any model out there where you are the paying customer and they dictate what you can and can’t do? It’s crazy, and they string a lot of kids along…….especially the guys lower on the pecking order….for their parents check. I’ve talked to a few academy coaches and they’ve said that with the MLS academies going residential. You may see in the future a two tiered academy system…….the MLS academies in one league……and the clubs in another. The clubs would have the restrictions lifted……but not the MLS sides. I like that idea…….it makes sense. If the academy is paying…they should get to dictate.

  6. James Lockerbie says:

    I could not agree more with this article. If fact I feel relieved that there is someone else out there that feels the same way I do.

    I stopped playing soccer at the high school level. Unfortunately school/career, I was not in touch with the local soccer club until my son was born. I tried to go back to the Pleasant wood soccer assoc. and it wasn’t there. The club had been replaced with the Ehtsc.

    The club has travel teams and an intramural program each age group plays other intamural teams from the surrounding communities. The travel team has all the skilled motivated players and receive the most attention with trainers and coaches. The intramural teams are filled with kids that their parents are forcing them to play to get them away from the computer.

    • James Lockerbie says:

      The cool part of the Pleasant woods soccer program the intramural teams carried the names of the NASL my brother and I were on the Rowdies, then there were the flames cosmos dips for the diplomats. we didn’t start travel teams until u14.

  7. I agree the Union academy is top notch but I think the impact they have on high school soccer in this area is small . They are one of the top academies in the country but it’s not like their roster is full of local kids they pull from all over and FC continental is at the bottom of all age groups .Now i agree it hurt strath haven as they would of had 4 kids ( not counting Hackworths kid cause he isn’t a true local and only here because of Union)on the team . Penn Crest only 1 . It takes less then 1 player per high school team .

    • James Lockerbie says:

      it’s not just the academies, it’s the local travel clubs. the kids skip high school and stay with the travel club teams.

      • your right, I know kids on Continental’s pre-academy 15’s who don’t play HS ball….and if pre-academy 15’s are doing this at other academies….thats even more players.

    • One agument that I find interesting, and have come to believe as true is that when the marginal or borderline players play with more talented players in pickup games, the level of play of those marginal or borderline players gets better.

      Anyway that I slice it, my eyes tell me that the level of soccer has dropped while becoming more expensive to play the game. I am for any discussions that will make things better.

      • A good player makes those around him better…..couldn’t agree more…….and +1 for the last paragraph

    • i think the privates are getting hammered by this more than anyone. The HS team I feel bad for is Hempfield………two years ago they lost like 12 to the PA Classics…….and they were really freakin good!

      • It’s not 1 for each school…….that’s crazy. LaSalle lost like 6 to the academy………..Judge lost 4 to the academy…I bet Haverford School and Shipley lost a few too. It’s not 1 per school……your math is off…and your not taking things into acount

    • Dan…it’s not just the Union’s academy….it’s Red Bull, PDA, NJSO4, PA Classics, and Continental all taking the better players from our area…..that’s a couple hundred players right there.

  8. I honestly think were coming to a point that the only credible HS sport will be American football. Thats ingrained in high school. Soccer with academies, basketball with AAU, and Hockey with clubs is the future of these sports….not high school. The best baseball players are now coming out of academies too. If you have little ones now……..plan accordingly.

  9. My son is about to graduate HS and played A team travel all his life. He just won all but the defense season awards for his HS team, and his travel team won recently a big trophy at the Disney Tournament. He is also getting recruited by many D3 Colkeges. The point is that his teams may not have been as strong as before the DA, but it does not matter. He had the time of his life (and played for packed HS stadiums) and picked up many leadership skills on the way. So for him and his travel team mates it was fine that the DA were set up. Had my son played intramural then he never could have gotten all the awards, and he never would have lifted that precious trophy in Orlando last month.

  10. Interesting. And I agree.

    The reason I have ended up here is due to an issue I have with club teams —-

    As a parent, you are expected to not express your opinion on issues with the team. ‘The coach knows better than you.’

    This is my kid playing, not yours.

    I get that you have parents with multiple opinions, totally get it.

    I also play lots of pickup soccer, and I want to learn. How can I learn when I watch club teams play and not see the level of play any better than pickup but I am not allowed to ask in general about the coach’s philosophy or system?

    This is my roundabout way of saying the club teams have issues for reasons stated in the article but also due to the setup of coaches who are distanced from the parents and even players. If teams were intramurals, would that gap be less?

  11. The argument was that there should be more intramural. The problem with that is there simply aren’t enough kids for a CLub to sustain an intramural program. And kids get bored by intramural (same opponents week in and out). The objective of soccer, for the majority of children, is to have fun. Don’t really care about the elite academy teams. There are a lot more B players in the world than A players. Give me a kid who is balanced with school, outside activities, and sports over, and we’ll help with that. Let them play travel. Travel in ICSL is nice and local. There is nothing wrong with it. There are spots for elite player all over the Delaware Valley, so where is the disconnect? B and C travel is effectively the “intramural”.

    The other problem is coaches, or lack thereof. Slight working knowledge of soccer from VOLUNTEER coaches, supported by some professional trainers, is the model for most local Clubs. They can keeep their fees reasonable.

    You want to pay thousands for a professional coach and trainers, go for it. But most people do not.

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