Fleming: Time to stop running US Youth soccer like a country club


How has a sport-mad country of more than 300 million people not yet produced its own world-class soccer superstar?

It’s a question I often hear asked, and it’s usually accompanied by a boast that the USA is not far away from doing so.

Major League Soccer has produced stars within its own competition, but none have the appeal of a Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo. It has also imported ready-made icons of the sport, such as Beckham, Kaka and Drogba, but the USA has still to offer up their own superstar to the world.

I’m sure, over time, that will change but the States could help itself by broadening the net, and widening the search. And they could start by scaling back the obscene class system within soccer.

Family members from the UK are staggered by the cost of youth soccer in this great nation. For a young boy or girl to play club soccer in the UK, it costs annually about $250 maximum. That’s less than a tenth of the cost for kids as young as five or six in some US states. The parents of teenagers seeking to showcase their talents have been known to part with anywhere between ten and 15 thousand dollars over the course of a year!

Unbelievable, and really quite ludicrous. And what this does is it creates an elite sport, similar to where golf is/was in the UK. Those that can afford it will have the opportunity. Those that can’t may be lost for good. Yet this is soccer; a simple game, with simple rules and simple equipment.

Sadly, I’m finding that in a number of cases it’s a business first and a sport second. Youth soccer clubs have multi-million dollar turnovers, employ technical directors on six-figure salaries, field teams at the best facilities, and have access to the best tournaments and the best coaches. Where is the space for the children from families on low incomes; youngsters unlikely to be able to afford the college route, dare I say it, from the Hispanic communities, where soccer is in the blood?

There’s a debate to be had over the direction of soccer in the USA, but it’s bigger than whether Jurgen Klinsmann should still have a job. There needs to be grown-up, serious chatter about the sport from the grass-roots up. The professional arena selects from a particular section of society, with the very odd exception. More needs to be done to allow soccer to truly be a sport for all. In a nation which has such a sizeable population, is enough being done to tap into the young immigrants? From my limited experience, I’d say ‘no’.

Take many of the greatest players ever to play the game, and most were not fortunate enough to have their soccer funded to such an extraordinary extent. Certainly, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi would have been lost to the game had they been born in the USA. Both were raised in relative poverty, and yet they have risen to the top of the world in their chosen profession. Why? Because they were judged on their ability, and not on their ability to pay.

As mentioned at the outset, I’m sure the USA will eventually produce a superstar of soccer. But I’m also pretty sure they could speed up that process if only the youth soccer structure was not built upon full-time staff and the need for lots of high-paying players. I appreciate that there are some exceptions, volunteers who coach for the love and not the livelihood, but they are rare.

The youth soccer scene operates like a private country club, keeping the riff-raff at bay; riff-raff which most likely contains a lot of talented youngsters that, sadly, will never know how good they could be.

It’s time for the USA to decide whether it wants to continue chasing the Yankee dollar, or whether it wants to find out how good it truly can be. Expand your horizons, and don’t allow the pursuit of profit prevent progress.


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