Whether you were around to see bands like Green Day and the Offspring climb to the top of the charts or not, the musical landscape changed abruptly in the last decade of the century. Some people give full credit to Nirvana but that overlooks many of the ingredients that contributed to this musical upheaval. Punk was a largely underground scene during the 1980s when pop music and hair bands dominated the air waves. Despite being chided and largely non-existent in popular media outlets, it still maintained a following that was passionate about it. By the time that the 90s came around and the desire for an alternative to the very superficial was at a peak, the punk bands of the 90s gained in popularity.
Trading music for sport, the proliferation of soccer throughout the US has taken a similar trajectory. Although there is no “underground” sports scene, soccer gained its following in the youth ranks. Much like the punks of the 80s, kids playing soccer for several decades have received their ridicule for being outside of the mainstream sports. In the professional ranks, Major League Soccer was the second attempt to bring soccer to the masses. The NASL had brought some awareness to the sport but it was largely an imported spectacle. It probably helped the grassroots interest in the sport but the professional vacuum of a decade made it solely a kids game. This could be construed as a negative but it also made the participants care about the sport rather than heroes on the TV screen. The DIY mentality has been helpful in creating a supporters culture within the sport.
Punk hit a crescendo in the 90s because the masses began to see what the people from the underground always knew. They had a special thing. Even though it wasn’t popular with everyone, they loved it. That sentiment began to rub off on others. When you don’t care if the thing that you love is popular with everyone, the masses eventually take notice because organic growth happens through passion, not marketing.
Now that soccer has become relevant within the mainstream, where does it go from here? My opinion is not worth much but I believe that it goes on a thirty year run of being the most popular sport in the US. Music genres dominate for decades. Sports tend to dominate for quarter or half centuries. When the USMNT wins the World Cup in 2026, the work that the USWNT has done will be complete. The United States will truly be considered a soccer nation and the inferiority complex that we have about the sport will disappear. People who throw shade at MLS and our lack of high level talent will be silenced.
When music stores still existed on a large scale, I was mainly listening to punk rock. As I would shuffle through the CDs in the punk section looking for something by Millencolin, I would invariably see Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. It was a strange enough name to catch the eye but I never really looked into them because Youtube and other sampling tools weren’t available. In preparation for this article, I decided to look more closely at their history and catalogue. I just liked the name to hammer home an idea but it turned out to be more perfect than I thought. Me First… is made up of members from different rock bands and they perform punk cover versions of popular songs like “Mandy” by Barry Manilow or “Hello” by Lionel Richie. They take other people’s winners and dress them up a little differently. There’s nothing really wrong with what the Gimme Gimmes are doing because the original songwriters get a portion of the revenue produced. Now that you’re up to speed on Me First… let’s see what was can do about youth soccer.
The system of youth soccer in America is in need of an overhaul. The dissolution of the DA may end up being a positive in the long run but from top to bottom there’s a lot more wrong. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are not pretending to be anything more than what they are a cover band. However their name seems to be a perfect way to describe the overall ethos of youth soccer at the moment. Leagues, clubs, trainers, tournaments, etc. are all part of a system that seems to be less about soccer and more about money. This is a game that could be almost free for kids to play but here it is big business. Why? Because the system is so disjointed that it allows people to take advantage and there is no real incentive to act in the interest of the greater good. So my hope is that the hiatus that we are on will shed some light on those issues. Allow me to explain.
In most countries there is a soccer pyramid that makes some form of sense. Teams that are higher up the pyramid get there by a type of meritocracy. The same is true about players. A player must climb the pyramid as well. Perhaps they are fortunate to get discovered early in their career. In the professional ranks, teams can either develop their own talent through their academy system or buy talent from elsewhere. If a player is bought, then their youth club gets some form of financial compensation called development payment. This money allows the smaller clubs to continue to develop players. Sometimes the financial gain is worth letting go of a good player. It helps the club’s finances and the player usually moves on to a higher level.
In the American system, there is no incentive for clubs to let go of their players. Development payments are not recognized yet by the USSF. Therefore clubs are less likely to help talented players move on. A quality player or team of players raise the perceived clout of the club and can bring in more money. Since the US does not embrace development payments, all of the money is brought in from the families of the players. So every player is also a customer and losing customers is not a good strategy for staying in business. Although this is a major problem, it is not the only one. Due to the lack of overarching structure the United States soccer “pyramid” has many organizational flaws. The lack of a concrete system allows perception to dominate common practice. NCAA, NAIA, ECNL, NPL, AYSO, US Club, ODP, and so many other acronyms are part of a landscape of muddied waters. Each acronym with their own vested interest that may or may not serve the betterment of their players or soccer in general.
Although the system is dysfunctional and needs an overhaul, a pandemic might be the perfect cure for what ails soccer in the US. More than anything, it is giving people time to reflect.
Path to the Pros – USSF has already taken this opportunity to dissolve the DA. Although it may take some time for MLS to get its replacement right, in the end, any club in the “Development Academy” league should have some direct path to the professional game. This change can separate the cream of the crop from the pretenders who pay a lot for the prestige of being in the DA.
Going Solo – The pandemic has forced all training sessions to be shut down. So since players can’t see their high priced trainers, they’re practicing on their own. It probably shouldn’t be this big of a revelation but American kids and parents are recognizing that skills practice in isolation can help. The flip side of this coin could also be a revelation. A kid who is not practicing during this huge opportunity to get ahead of competition, probably doesn’t love the sport enough to justify a huge financial investment.
Dollars and Sense – With the economic impact of the pandemic on the average family’s income, most people are going to have to consider their expenditures heavily. So high priced soccer clubs are going to have to take a backseat to things like food, health care, electricity, etc. With the loss of DA status and the financial crunch that so many will be feeling, clubs will either prove their value or struggle to survive. If you’ve ever read my work before, I’m a huge proponent of the local club for the vast majority of players.
Come Together – We can’t right now but eventually when we can, the game is going to need fans. Support your local MLS, USL or NPSL team. The common refrain that I get when I talk to people about supporting professional soccer in America is “I can’t watch MLS, it sucks!” This stance only helps the ego of the person who is willing to believe it. MLS is NOT the Premier League or La Liga or the Bundesliga or the Serie A. Roger that! However, do you really desire to have the best leagues in the world be an ocean away? Or would you rather have the best soccer in the world being played right in your backyard? If the answer is that you love the long distance relationship, then great. If you want the best to be within your reach, then you have to pay attention NOW! Investors are going to put money into soccer, only if they see that the product is selling. So Euro snobbery is only going to perpetuate the status quo.
So now I circle back to the beginning, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. I’ve seen a lot of things throughout this pandemic and the attacks of 9/11 and other tragedies to know that people in this country are not all about themselves. Not everyone has got their hands out looking to take from others. However when things are “normal”, we’re so damn busy and distracted that we don’t think much about the collective. How we all fit into the bigger picture. Soccer is a we sport! My hope is that this pandemic will teach us the lesson that WE are all in the together: soccer, life, the world.