A View from Afar

How to spend U.S. Soccer’s $100 million surplus

Photo: 215pix

Here’s how U.S. Soccer should spend much of its $100 million surplus:

Expand the game beyond the comfortable middle class.

Maybe you’ve heard the story about how Clint Dempsey grew up in a working class family with four siblings. His parents drove him hours to get to quality youth soccer, but eventually, they had to make a choice between paying for his older sister’s tennis career or his soccer prospects because of lack of funds. Unfortunately for them, both children had both chosen sports that in America cost far too much money to play. His parents made the tough decision to cut back on his soccer and pay for his sister’s tennis. Her sudden, untimely death meant they paid for Dempsey’s soccer instead, and we came to know who he was. If not for a tragedy that Dempsey would probably trade his career to erase, we may never have heard of him.

This is a story all around America.

Who plays soccer in the inner cities? Just immigrants.

Who plays soccer in the suburbs? Mostly immigrants and kids with parents who have decent-paying jobs. Because not only does rec league cost money, but so does travel soccer. Kids often can’t find high-quality soccer on playgrounds as easily as they can find high-quality basketball.  So they play other sports.

Twenty-five years ago, there was no soccer on TV, no major soccer league in America. Now, you have both, and kids grow up with soccer around them and are more likely to pursue the sport.

But in the end, they still have to pay to play at a rate higher than other major team sports in America.

The notion of U.S. Soccer spending that money on a national training center is mind-boggling. Isn’t that pretty much what Bradenton was? We don’t need that.

Here are some better alternatives.

Matching grants for regional training centers

If quality training centers are what they really want, U.S. Soccer would be better served in providing smaller seed money grants for professional teams to match in order to build regional training centers that rival what Atlanta United has constructed. Use of matching grants is done in community development throughout the country to incentivize further investment, and it works.

Build soccer fields and courts

Provide grants to build and maintain soccer fields and courts around the country.

If you’re unfamiliar with soccer courts, these are smaller outdoor (or indoor) soccer venues for five on five or eight on eight.

In Italy, it’s called calciotto, or “soccer at eight.” Good luck finding fields in urban Italy for pickup soccer, but pickup games on courts – grass or hard-ground – dot the urban landscape. The hard courts cost less to maintain. It’s basically the equivalent of your standard outdoor basketball court.

In Uruguay, Brazil and elsewhere, they play five a side, or futbol sala, widely known now as futsal. Use what works.

Travel soccer alternatives

Create alternatives to expensive travel soccer, either through grants to clubs that lower player costs or an alternative structure that doesn’t require such high costs in the first place.

Here’s a tangent to that:

Back when I was working down in southwestern New Jersey, the best local league was probably the Mexican league in Bridgeton. It was mostly adult and Spanish was more common than English, but talented teens who were serious about their game knew that if they wanted to test themselves regularly, this was the league to join. However, the league struggled regularly to find adequate fields, as did a similar top league in Atlantic City.

Fund these leagues. It doesn’t matter that they’re targeted toward adults. Many are open to teens.

The aforementioned Clint Dempsey is noted for developing his game – and his “he tries s**t” style — in the rough and tumble Latino pickup games in Texas. This is effectively how it works in basketball. When I was a teenage basketball players, we found the best games wherever they were. You often learned a lot more going up against street-smart and still athletic 30-year-old ballers than you did on a court with coaches. Until you have a regular pickup soccer scene around America that rivals what you have in basketball – see point above, regarding funding fields and courts – these leagues are one of your best bets.

Improve scouting

Others have suggested this first, but focus on identifying talented players who are getting missed and find ways to get them opportunities. U.S. Soccer employs less than a dozen scouts. Where do you think they are? Elite youth tournaments mostly. That means they’re finding players already identified.

Who’s unearthing that unpolished diamond playing on a patchy field in Norristown? Nobody.

Backdrop: This poor kid and soccer

As a child, I was briefly introduced to soccer. I liked it. But I quickly found other kids were playing travel soccer, whereas I was just another kid whose single mom could only afford (and handle getting me to games for) rec league. I dropped soccer quickly enough because American football beckoned, and I loved the latter, but I also got angry about the class differences that limited my opportunities. (I found this with tennis too and stopped playing once I learned my family couldn’t afford year-round tennis, which meant I couldn’t compete on an even playing field with wealthy kids.) I was good enough to play each sport at a high level, but in retrospect, I recognize my 6-2, 150-pound body (I’m 20 pounds heavier now) was built more to be a goalkeeper than to be wide receiver taking a pounding on passes over the middle.

Poor kids like me played other sports because soccer wasn’t pervasive and we couldn’t afford the game.

Soccer is the everyman’s sport nearly everywhere but America. U.S. Soccer has the opportunity to change that.

17 Comments

  1. When you try and comment on this from a phone. (or when you try to hit any link) you get redirected to a spam sight.
    .
    Whats up with that?

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    If there was something to add to this is would. Alpha and Omego.

  3. I think most people who enjoy the game or play the game agree with this basic premise. I’d love to hear a plan to address it. And as much as urban areas would benefit from funded programs and facilities, the suburbs could use the same. So much of it is cultural, too. The township where I live has no problem working with the local baseball group to put a lot of money and effort into a beautiful public baseball park with no fewer than three fields complete with backstops, bases and supplies. I don’t know of a soccer pitch in nearly as good a state anywhere nearby. In a pocket park near my house, the township left a couple U-10 sized goals up through the winter that were a great diversion for local kids and a few dads to play pickup (Can’t recommend a u-10 sized field enough for the over-40 set). Goals were removed without warning. Probably an oversight to begin with. I feel like even $100 million is a drop in the bucket.

  4. The Truth says:

    I vote for the poor. Class inequality is a huge problem that could be helped with a couple hundred bare-bones futsal courts in lieu of some of our city’s basketball courts. The growing demographic wanting to excel in soccer (as opposed to other sports) exists but the infrastructure is woefully absent. It can be argued talent finds a way but how many NBA stars cut their teeth against big kids on the neighborhood court?

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    I vote for education but proper education. The germans have proven the game does not need to be in the hands of the poor. What they have is a rich history and standards that are exceptional and highly highly qualified educators of the game… and teach a sense that if you are not giving it your all, someone else is. There are reasons players in USDA and MLS Academies likely do not get replaced and we could discuss that for an hour.
    .
    What is needed is a unified and ‘correct’ vision across every level of play with one governing body organizing…that states as its first rule: Unless kids are playing 10 hours a week across multiple age groups, the GAME IS NOT THE BEST TEACHER. Children as young as 7, with proper education are very very capable of higher tactical organization than they are given credit for. I feel US Soccer (and its bedfellow MLS) is trying to do right but ultimately gets in its own way often times. A big part of this is the play to play model.
    .
    The game will never be in the hands of the poor in the US. There will never be a Bombonera but there does not have to be. What we most need to hope for is advanced scouting to find and build ‘hot spots’ to mine kids from. There are hot spots. They are out there. These players are marginalized.
    .

  6. Zizouisgod says:

    Great post, Dan.

    Train and educate more coaches. There are only really a handful of nations that do this very well (Germany, Italy, etc.) and this could allow us to become one of the leaders in this field.

    Mini-pitches and a budget to maintain them after they’re built – If anyone has ever looked into this type of grant, US Soccer doesn’t make things easy for you.

    Take the lead in instituting solidarity payments to the local clubs when pro players get transferred. USSF needs to lead this initiative and should force MLS to get on board with it. It’s the right thing to do.

    Patreon sponsorship for PSP and any other soccer related websites in the US that are run by volunteers.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      My understanding is solidarity is not an issue with MLS but it is an issue with USSF.
      .
      I am of the opinion is will be MLS filing the lawsuit someday, if it comes to that… a bigger version of Crossfire.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      You know, I meant to add the coaches point on there and forgot. Great point! Thanks for adding it.

  7. This article is spot on. I grew up in a wealthy family in Brussels, but that didn’t stop me from playing “street” football in small areas and parks with poor kids; no one cared or really knew the difference at age 8, 9 or ten. If you look at all the greatest technical players, you will see that most of them come from poor places where kids play in the street in the same way as top basketball players learn on the local courts. Kids get much more time playing with the ball when they play five-a-side (futsal) and develop more skills sooner. Furthermore – and FAR more importantly! – small-sided games like futsal are much, much more fun for kids than 11-a-side: the game will recruit FAR more addicts at a young age if the kids are left to just play small-sided games WITHOUT overly controlling, annoying and boring coaches interfering all the time. Most american sports are way, way over-coached; this is why (apart from basketball and hockey) they lack spontaneity and visceral excitement. soccer is a constant rush for kids because the action never ends in street soccer and adults don’t tell you what to do all the time.

    Accordingly, any money available should be poured into buying spaces and building concrete (low maintenance) futsal areas in poor neighborhoods. Also, we need a futsal league which will rival the AYSO. The latter has done a good job, but has killed the small-side, un-coached part o the natural game that produces the armies of talented players in Africa and South America. Fund regional, pick-up and un-coached futsal leagues and you will get many more very young kids addicted to the game.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Great comment! Thanks for the perspective.

      I got hooked on soccer after playing 5-on-5 (or 4-on-4 or whatever) pickup in Brazil on a hard court. It’s basically the same as how I fell in love with basketball as a teenager, playing 3-on-3 half court pickup. That’s the parallel.

  8. I’m sure a lot of people have similar stories on here. Even coming from a fairly comfortable middle class family, I made an elite travel squad when I was 11 in Ft. Wayne, IN (yes, home of Demarcus Beasley, who was in high school at the time and a figure at all the camps et al I attended), but my family couldn’t afford the frankly exorbitant costs of the team and I didn’t play for the team.
    .
    As it happened, I went on to continue to play the fairly solid rec leagues around town but fell far behind my peers who played travel, and not make my high school team that ended up winning a state championship.
    .
    Everyone on who ended up playing for that travel squad went on to play college soccer on scholarship and many of them ended up playing down at the Academy in Bradenton.
    .
    I’m all for making making elite soccer more affordable, but now as a resident of PHL who has coached up in Kensington, the inner city soccer point is especially important. There are so many talented kids who don’t have fields to play on or even equipment to play with and it’s absolutely abominable that U.S. Soccer has let this go for so long.

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