We live in a world where duality is an everyday thing. The medicine that can be used to cure can become poison in the wrong dosage. Not caring what people think is a strength until one becomes ostracized for being outlandish. These forces that pull from opposite sides show up in many areas of our life. Much like a suspension bridge across a large chasm, the tension at each end holds up the bridge provided that the middle is not overburdened. My fear is that we’ve overburdened the middle in the soccer world.
Although the title is meant to be slightly inflammatory, the question of intent needs to be discussed for one moment. None of this is a moral judgement on the people involved at any level. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor someone looking to blame individuals. Generally people tend to do the best that they can with what they know. Often cultural influences are stronger than the judgement of an individual. So my hope is that the title mixed with the argument will get a few individuals to consider their personal situation.
Do the math – As a former math major in college, the first part of my discussion is about the mathematics of the situation. Whether the player is interested in eventually reaching the college or professional level, the parent and the player need to understand the low number of opportunities for both. The maximum number of scholarships that a NCAA Division I program can give is 9.9 for men and 14 for women. With the number of potential candidates and the low number of scholarships, it is a low yield proposition. Only 5.5% of high school soccer players play at the collegiate level according to the NCAA: 1.3% Div I, 1.5% Div II, 2.7% Div III. (NCAA.org) From that 1.3% playing in Division I, a much smaller percentage receive athletic scholarships. So the mathematics are against them. This information is often not known or understood by parents. The potential for making it as a professional is much lower than college. Many families pay large sums of money each year for specialized training that will have almost no “return on investment”.
The high performance side of the chasm seems to be pulling the bridge in one direction to the detriment of the players “caught in the middle.” Clubs and teams seem to be organized and run with a high performance outcome in mind. This is not a terrible thing. It will create the players that will eventually win the World Cup on the men’s side and keep the women dominant for generations. However there are many players and parents who are the collateral damage of this all out pursuit of high performance. Thousands of dollars and hundreds hours are spent on an endeavor with a relatively predictable outcome. Few players will reach the higher levels of the pyramid. The cultural ratchet has tightened on this side of the equation.
While on the other side of the chasm, recreation soccer is largely looked down upon. Unfortunately for many of the players who are caught in the middle, they are playing recreation soccer with high price tag. The “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality in the world of youth sports is troubling because the number one reason why you people say that they play is for fun. That is exactly what recreation is intended to be. Since it lacks the cache or social status, it is barely hanging onto the other side of the chasm.
This situation is untenable and unnecessary. The NFL has a draft every year that is never lacking in talent. College football teams have more scholarships to give but club football has not popped up on my radar yet. Camps and individual coaching are most likely a huge market in that sport but somehow clubs with snazzy names are not. The pipeline of talent is syphoned in a completely different way that mainly only costs the top level.
Despite all that is wrong with the youth club system, I still want every single kid in the US to play soccer. The game has so much to offer young people that the present situation is disheartening. I got truly excited when I read that the sale of chessboards had risen significantly due to the TV show “The Queen’s Gambit.” Although it is possible that expensive competitive chess clubs and trainers are going to pop up all over the country, it is more likely that mothers, fathers, sons and daughters will play each other or friends will play. The process is the outcome that people are looking for. The game gives everything that the person needs. If they want to chase more, that is on them. Thousands of young players are unlikely to feel the negative effects of being caught in the chess cultural ratchet. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the present situation in soccer.
Since I’m not a fan having a complaint without some suggestions for improvement, here are a few thoughts:
Tryouts every other year – Players and clubs need to commit to each other. Annual tryouts sends a message to kids that they are expendable. It also leads to a lack of loyalty on both sides. Playing with the same kids for a few years allows friendships to build.
Get the words right – US Soccer or a collection of the state associations need to classify levels of play. Since MLS has taken the academy league over, this should make for a pretty simple equation. In my estimation, most leagues should be classified as recreation and a handful “competitive” or some other adjective. A club cannot claim to be “elite” if they are playing in a recreation league. Some entity needs to stop the inflation of words within the soccer world.
Incentivize unity over cannibalism – It may not be true everywhere but it seems that the ingredients for a new club are as follows: two teams worth of kids and a coach who was unhappy at another club. The pattern of clubs splitting or losing teams etc. is largely based on the adults. Clubs with teams at each age level could be given some form of incentive from the state association. How much would it cost for the adults to put their egos aside? This could be tough but not impossible.
After all of this being said, I truly believe that the club system could be an amazing opportunity for young players to gain soccer and life skills within a community environment. Unfortunately the reality looks less like that possibility due to shortsighted objectives. Around 1% of kids who start playing soccer will play in college or the pros. So shouldn’t we be giving the other 99% more than some foot skills and a warmup with a logo on it. Just something to consider.
Clubs should be communities, not organizations.