Authors: Gabriel Marín, Daan de Blank and Marc Blasco.
The non-qualification of the U.S. men’s national soccer team [USMNT] for the World Cup resulted in a lot of introspection to determine the problems of U.S. soccer. We can identify multiple structural reasons that explain the failure of U.S soccer: an inadequate youth system, cultural and historical reasons, the domestic leagues, the lack of quality coaches and the governance of the United States Soccer Federation [USSF.] This article mainly examines the U.S soccer youth system and how it is hindering soccer development in the country.
Historically, soccer has failed to emerge as a popular spectator sport in the U.S. This could be explained by the American myth of what constitutes its national sports. American football, baseball and basketball are recognized as American, while soccer is not. This in turn can be understood in light of the historical american exceptionalism and of the cultural drive to ‘Americanize’ sports, which crowded out soccer in the United States (Collins 2007).
U.S. Soccer, the governing body of soccer in the United States, has the long term goal to make soccer a preeminent sport in the U.S and to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels (U.S. Soccer 2018). It is failing in achieving its mission because of its failure to develop an adequate youth system. This is depriving the United States of the talent that it needs to compete in international soccer competitions.
The US Youth Soccer Association claims that there are over 3.2 million registered players which is 1.3 million more children than in baseball (Foer 2010: 244). The data also illustrates that approximately 50% of the youth participants are female. Existing literature and research from experts in the sport industry has resulted in an ideal-type model for developing high-performance sport integrated with mass participation, illustrated in Figure 1 (Smolianov et al. 2014: 4). This model will help us analyse the main issues and challenges and appreciate to what extent the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is competent.
Figure 1. Ideal-type model for developing high-performance sport (Smolianov et al. 2014: 4).
Research highlights three main issues in the structure of soccer in the U.S. that reduce long term participation among children. First, soccer participation is linked to the financial position of parents (Carpenter 2016), as the American soccer system is based on the pay-to-play system that excludes the poorest of Americans (Guvener 2016). Research shows that one-third of the youth players come from families with annual incomes over $75,000, while only 11% come from families with incomes lower than $25,000 (Carpenter 2016). Most colleges recruit players from academies such as IMG Academy, in which the cost of playing is unaffordable for many, at $58 000 a year. Subsidisation and scholarships are limited (Smolianov et al. 2014: 15).
“The result is a system more attuned to identifying the best payers than the best players” (Eckstein 2017).
Secondly, it appears that a continued overemphasis on winning, at the cost of player development persists in the U.S sports culture.
Managing director of Soccer America Magazine declared: “America loves a winner and will support nothing else” (Bandyopadhyay and Mallick 2008: 198).
By comparison, the Netherlands has been a leading country in developing talented soccer players for decades because it strives for development above winning (Nesti and Sulley 2014: 24). Whereas the Ajax Academy focuses on developing talented professional players, enabling the club to sell them and recoup funds to improve facilities and coaching, Americans still widely believe on the “self-made athlete” and prioritise immediate winning (Turner 2016, Sokolove 2010).
Besides, there is a need for better coaches certified by age groups, particularly at the younger levels. Sport-specific education and licensing of coaches are not required in the U.S. Consequently, most soccer coaches in the U.S. are parents and cannot absorb coach education fast enough to effectively use the information (Smolianov et al. 2014: 6). This results in only a couple hundred UEFA A licensed coaches in the U.S while the figure for a country like Spain is 8 000 (Kerr-dineen 2017).
A meso level analysis highlights the importance of accessible and affordable soccer facilities for all Americans to generate a sustainable growth of the sport.
American families often drive more than an hour to the nearest soccer facility (Vincent and Christensen 2015: 81).
From that perspective it is clear that USSF fails to provide access to those of all economic statuses. It is recommended that professional soccer teams partner with US soccer national governing bodies, as well as with educational and government sectors to build more specific facilities for both competitive and recreational usage.
Secondly, competitive opportunities provided in the U.S. are essential to support player development; yet the USSF does not use seem to be using its surplus efficiently to develop the competition at all levels (Smolianov et al. 2014: 11). The USSF fails to accommodate youth programs like Olympic Development Programs whereby talented players who can feed U.S. Youth National Teams are found. There is not enough coordination with high school soccer programs and soccer competitions to support what is on the best interest of the athletes (Smolianov et al. 2014: 11).
Players in the U.S. are often forced to choose between playing for a club or university, leading to a drastic decrease of youth academies. External support is crucial to support the change of attitude within the soccer community.
The frequent dilemma of young athletes between staying in school or envisaging a future as a professional soccer player is not positive (Massey 2017).
Furthermore, there is a lack of incentives for soccer participation in the U.S. It is recommended that the USSF cooperates with the government to financially support grassroots training centers with subsidized facilities, coaching and services for beginners.
Over the last decade, the German government has invested approximately $1 billion in grassroots programs, academies run by professional teams, and training centers overseen by the Deutscher Fußball Bund. The reformed model to increase mass participation and improve players development had a very positive impact throughout the country (Kulish 2012). Sport England has a long term partnership with the National Lottery to fund projects that are making a difference to lives across the country. Since 2009, Sport England has invested more than 1.5 billion pounds of National Lottery Money in grassroots sport. Research show that those National Lottery athlete funds have a significant positive result on player development on the long-term (The National Lottery 2012).
This report agrees with Eicksen (2017) in that men’s soccer in the U.S. will not be able to compete internationally as long as it is enmeshed in a class-restrictive youth sports system. Changing this system is imperative.
The USSF does provide scholarships for talented academy players who require financial assistance, but at an average of $1,325 they seem insufficient and can potentially lead to problems with teammates and families that do not receive scholarships because they do not meet the eligibility criteria (U.S. Soccer Development Academy 2018).
Instead of scholarships, it is recommended that the USSF takes initiatives to implement a low fee cap for academies to support equality of opportunities and encourage participation. An additional recommendation is to examine international network opportunities with european soccer academies to analyse their vision on the american model of pay-to-play and how to overcome this major challenge.
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