Guest Column

How to get more Philadelphia kids playing soccer

Photo: 215pix

Everyone knows that youth soccer participation has fallen over the last decade in America. And despite the city’s rich soccer history, Philly hasn’t been able to buck the trend.

Bill Salvadore, from the city Department of Parks and Recreation, summarized the problem bluntly in 2018:

“It’s no secret: we have less kids playing soccer in the city.”

He went on to give an example of a youth league in Philly’s northwest, which lost eight teams in just a few years due to declining participation.

It hasn’t always been this way. Soccer was the fastest growing sport in America in the late 80s. Now the data is showing that other youth sports, such as football, are growing in popularity much faster than soccer in Pennsylvania.

Here are some steps that could be taken to get more kids playing soccer in our city.

Moving away from pay-to-play

It’s no secret that youth soccer is incredibly expensive in Philadelphia, especially once a child begins high school.

It costs nearly $2000 a year for an under 16 player to play travel soccer in the city, not including gear like cleats. Equipment can add another $200 or more per year to the total annual cost.

Many kids are simply priced out of the sport, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Barring players that can get a scholarship, there are very few alternative pathways to playing youth soccer that aren’t so expensive.

This is probably the biggest single reason behind declining participation. Unfortunately, it isn’t an easy problem to fix.

Eliminating pay-to-play completely is probably unrealistic. However, there needs to be some way of reducing the cost for those that cannot afford it, whether it be through more volunteer/parent coaches at lower levels, government subsidies, or smaller competitions with fewer teams and less travel involved.

More options for playing soccer

Inaccessibility and high costs are the main reasons that kids quit the sport. For those that cannot afford to play travel soccer, there must be more accessible forms of the game that can serve as alternatives.

These alternatives don’t necessarily have to be ultra-competitive – they just need to provide an easier avenue for kids who are interested in soccer to keep playing the game.

For example, some clubs have taken it upon themselves to organize small-sided tournaments with other teams in the city.

The truth is though, soccer does not always have to be super-organized to be successful. Many of the world’s best South American players started playing the game on the street at as young as six years old.

A soccer culture can thrive with strong pick-up game roots. In fact, Philadelphia’s pick-up game group on meetup.com already has more than 3500 members.

The issue is that pick-up games are mostly designed for adults – kids can’t be expected to organize their own pick-up groups. The city needs more investment in public soccer facilities that enable kids to play the game spontaneously.

Better promotion of the Union

Youth participation in a given sport is driven in large part by the culture surrounding that sport that they are exposed to.

This is why soccer is so massive in Europe. Kids play because their friends play, and because their parents probably played when they were children.

However, there’s another reason that kids take up a sport. They want to emulate their idols, as seen on TV.

Playing for your zip code, city, or even your country can be an incredible motivator.

For Philadelphia, the Union is what really ties it all together. If we can get more kids interested in their performance in the MLS, and how their homegrown heroes are playing, it becomes possible to inspire more kids to take up the beautiful game.

For the Union, the best form of promotion would obviously be an MLS championship, although this is easier said than done.

In the immediate term, the club could consider investing a little more time in community engagement. Initiatives such as The U on Tour are a great way to get kids connected with the club.

And most importantly of all, Union home games must be accessible. Ticket prices, especially for young fans, could be a little lower than they are today.

Take advantage of the World Cup

Hosting a World Cup can be an incredibly powerful way of capturing the public attention. Not only can there be immense economic benefit, but hosting the tournament is also a powerful way of promoting soccer to the general population.

As you’re probably aware, America has recently secured the rights to host the 2026 World Cup, along with Canada and Mexico.

This is a fantastic opportunity for Philadelphia. Although the tournament is still six years away, the city needs to do everything it can to ensure it becomes one of the 23 host cities.

Hosting a USMNT game would just be icing on the cake. Even without showcasing an American game, having some of the 2026 World Cup played locally would do wonders for youth soccer participation in Philadelphia.

Matt Brown is a co-owner of liftyourgame.net.

9 Comments

  1. These are all good suggestions. I would add the need to include a level in between “Ultra Competitive” and “Pick Up Games.” Recreational Leagues need to become more prevalent and return the aura surrounding the game to what it was in the 80’s and 90’s when the game was booming.
    .
    Part of the appeal of the game back then was that you didn’t have a competitive atmosphere surrounding each and every game, with a focus on scholarships (did they even give soccer scholarships in the 80’s?) and Academies, and going pro. A VAST majority if kids playing the game won’t play after high school, if they even play in high school at all. There needs to be a place for them to play the game for the love of the game for as long as they want and can.
    .
    This needs to be organized (with fields, refs, and at least t-shirt uniforms) and at a low cost (under $100 per season/player) and you’ll find plenty of kids who want to just get out and play.
    .
    Plus, if the local leagues and Academies are smart, they’ll get behind this and then scout the cheap leagues and offer positions to the best kids. Maybe waive fees for kids who can’t afford it, or whatever it takes to reward the best players. But you won’t find them if they aren’t playing at all.

    • There’s some real truth to finding a mid level between ultra competitive and pick up. When my son got to be about 10, the gulf between intramural and travel was pretty significant. Travel teams are expensive and require significant commitment. The intramural is barely even organized. It’s almost as if the dues for intramural do little more than help fund the travel program.

      Part of it also, I think, is just going to take time. At the intramural clubs where I coached and volunteered, there are still many coaches who never even played the sport and certainly don’t watch it. My son’s middle school coach never played the sport and had no idea how to organize 11 players. This will change as future generations of parents are more likely to have played the game. At least I hope so.

      • Scott of Nazareth says:

        +1 This is very true, I think 10-20 years from now, we should see MUCH better coaching because of having multiple generations having played/participated.

      • pragmatist says:

        I think the part about coaches is overstated, but only for the recreational leagues. When you are talking about the competitive travel programs, those coaches had better know what they are doing. But for a rec league, maybe have a 1-night primer for all the coaches who need some Soccer 101. But their main job would be to make sure all the kids get to play (since in this scenario we have taken intense competition out of it) and make sure everything stays friendly.
        .
        12 year olds playing Rec Soccer are likely there because their parents don’t want them playing video games or staring at their phones. They aren’t there as a pathway to the bigger clubs. So as long as things keep moving and everyone is having fun, that’s fine.
        .
        It should be more structured and better competition than the intramural leagues you experienced, but the goal of it should be for the kids who just want to get out and play.
        .
        Just my opinion. I’m a bit of an idealist here, though. 😉

  2. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Its a simple question with multiple and complex answers.

    It’d be tough to track return on investment, but US Soccer should spend a few years focusing on the grass root/rec level soccer. Put money towards community fields, lights, that would benefit the smaller community level clubs and help them build out their micro (U4-U7) programs.
    .
    Maybe also find a way to discourage the big regional clubs from setting up teams prior to U13. Watched a lot of good U10 or U11 teams crumble and fade when Johnny or Susie All Star leaves their neighborhood/local club team to play at the “Big Club” 2 towns over. I agree its tough to tell a parent or kid they shouldn’t be able to pursue bigger and better opportunities at whatever age because of where their skills development is, but what’s often the case is that there is still unrefined talent on the local team. When they see Johnny/Suzie leave, they think they’re not good enough and the sport really isn’t worth pursuing anymore.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    youth sports are an industry. lucrative as hell —and not about to change any time soon.
    .
    unfortunatly soccer is right in the bulls eye of this paradigm change.

    • Club soccer, besides the few elite clubs, are nothing more than a cash grab, a complete racket. I am not talking the academies. My kids are just coming of age for club ball and my jaw dropped at what is happening to the sport. Payed coaches that really don’t have the credentials they should for a pay gig, just because you have an D or C badge doesn’t mean you can teach the game properly, every parent there thinks little Johnny or Jaine is going to get a soccer scholarship, they aren’t getting their 10,000 touches on the ball, it’s all a show for the parents. The price for the travel team even at under 8’s means the best players aren’t all joining becaus their parents are refusing to drop $2,000 for an 8 year old. So they play intramural two and three years up and it’s a waste for them……and these are middle class parents from Chester County…….this isn’t only happening in the city. The Mexican and Guatemalan kids won’t play for the club they have their own weekend league they play in…..and there is quality there that isn’t tapped at all. Club soccer has to figure some things out……..because from everything I’ve read, this seems a nation wide problem.

  4. Biggest miss is that coaching at the rec level (parent coaching) is very poor. It is getting better quickly, because each generation has more parents that played competitive soccer as a youth. I don’t think US Soccer can fix this, only time. I was one of the D level travel coaches with little competitive soccer. What I saw was that you had coaches who knew soccer and coaches who knew coaching, and very few would did both.

    All sports except football die in youth participation at 9th grade. HS football dwarfs rec football in participation because rec football is very small, but it is losing players as well (for safety reasons)

    Even in Germany, star soccer players are moved into travel teams at u8 or lower, so keeping star players in rec to u12 kills their chances at development.

  5. Struck me right in the face today as I was out for a run in this beautiful 60-degree weather. I live in an upper middle class suburb, where the pay-to-play costs aren’t likely the biggest stumbling block. But, as I ran through the local park, there were about 20 – 30 kids and a couple of adults playing basketball on the outdoor courts. On the adjoining soccer field…1 kid getting in some ‘keeper practice with his dad. A pickup soccer game in the suburbs? Pretty much unheard of. If it were the norm, we’d be on our way.

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