How to fix soc­cer in the United States

Lo­cal, na­tional fig­ures seek an­swers to fix sport in United States af­ter World Cup de­ba­cle

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Front Page - By Chris Lill­strung CLill­strung@news-her­ @CLill­strungNH on Twit­ter

When it comes to the dy­namic of youth soc­cer, vir­tu­ally all in­vested par­ties in the United States ac­knowl­edge some­thing needs to change. The U.S. men’s na­tional team not qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup merely served to move the dis­cus­sion to the fore­front.

At the lo­cal lev­els, club coaches such as Mario Gr­gic and Zeljko Kalic from Croa­tia Ju­niors know it. Part­ners such as An­drews Os­borne head of school Larry Good­man know it.

Na­tional fig­ures such as U.S. Club Soc­cer CEO Kevin Payne get it as well.

Where it all de­vi­ates is the how part — and that is a co­nun­drum.

Pay to play

In or­der to im­prove skill and have a show­case for col­lege soc­cer and pos­si­bly be­yond, fam­i­lies learn early the hard way it’s go­ing to re­quire the fi­nan­cial re­sources to get there. It could in­volve thou­sands of dol­lars a year to play and train in club pro­grams, at­tend skill camps and travel through­out the re­gion and coun­try to show­cases. The model is known as “pay to play,” which can have un­in­tended con­se­quences.

“All sports are be­com­ing ex­pen­sive,” Kalic said.

“There’s so many clubs, and I think that a ma­jor­ity of the clubs have found out that, ‘Hey, we can make money.’ And a lot of them are mak­ing liv­ings on run­ning soc­cer clubs. Of course, you bring in coaches — you’ve got to pay them well.

“And that ex­cludes a lot of peo­ple.”

Those with­out the fi­nan­cial means to im­prove them­selves in the sport could, es­sen­tially, be priced out of the game.

“With the pay to play model, it’s be­com­ing a white-col­lar sport,” Gr­gic said. “If you re­ally want to bet­ter your­self, you have to have the re­sources or you have to have the funds to deal with the travel — some­times a cou­ple hun­dred miles a cou­ple times a week.

“There’s plenty of tal­ent, and there’s plenty of lo­cal kids that are never go­ing to get the ex­po­sure. I think that’s through­out the U.S.”

Many ex­perts, in­clud­ing for­mer U.S. men’s na­tional team striker and ESPN an­a­lyst Tay­lor Twell­man, have ar­gued for more in­vest­ment into youth de­vel­op­ment.

“I note that if I were go­ing to re­cruit bas­ket­ball play­ers, their ex­pec­ta­tion is that I’m go­ing to pay,” Good­man said. “So the great­est bas­ket­ball play­ers in the coun­try — ev­ery­body’s play­ing pickup games and it’s a very ac­ces­si­ble game. But when it comes time to ma­ture to that next level, the as­sump­tion is that the in­sti­tu­tion or the academy is go­ing to pay for this bas­ket­ball player.

“I’m learn­ing that in soc­cer, that’s not the case. So it’s not a pure mer­i­toc­racy.”

But, as Payne con­tends, the tab has to be picked up.

“Peo­ple that talk about (youth soc­cer be­ing un­der­writ­ten by a sin­gle payer) are pretty naive and don’t have much un­der­stand­ing,” Payne said. “I keep say­ing this: Some­body pays. Ev­ery­where. Soc­cer is not free any­where, un­less it’s kids play­ing in the park by them­selves with no adults. So some­body has to pay. If you’re talk­ing about a soc­cer sys­tem the size of the United States, with the num­ber of pro­grams we have with kids play­ing, it’s im­pos­si­ble to think there’s go­ing to be a sin­gle payer.

“That would re­quire a cou­ple bil­lion dol­lars a year, and that’s just not go­ing to get spent.”

In­clu­sive enough?

Be­cause of the fi­nan­cial bur­den soc­cer — and re­ally most sports — can be­come, the con­cern is whether soc­cer is reach­ing all of the com­mu­ni­ties and po­ten­tial play­ers it needs to across Amer­ica. Are the na­tion’s best teenagers choos­ing to carry on with soc­cer once a sport choice must be made?

“At the age of 5 or 6, it’s very cru­cial when th­ese kids come in, if they don’t have a pos­i­tive, good ex­pe­ri­ence with good fun­da­men­tals with the coach­ing, those kids even­tu­ally get pushed into dif­fer­ent sports,” Gr­gic said.

Payne cites Odell Beck­ham Jr. and No­mar Gar­ci­a­parra as “ex­cep­tional” ex­am­ples of who could be in the player pool but are ul­ti­mately lost to other pur­suits. Beck­ham Jr. and Gar­ci­a­parra were stand­out soc­cer play­ers in their youth but chose — ob­vi­ously wisely — to do foot­ball and base­ball, re­spec­tively.

The in­cen­tive needs to be there in or­der to play­ers to want to be in­volved in soc­cer long-term.

“Ob­vi­ously, we need to en­sure that we’re pro­vid­ing a great youth soc­cer ex­pe­ri­ence to ev­ery kid so that we don’t drive any­body out of the game,” Payne said. “You’re talk­ing about ex­cep­tional ath­letes who have the abil­ity to raise to the very top of the game. It’s hard to iden­tify who they are at an early age — it’s not hard. It’s im­pos­si­ble, pretty much.”

Es­pe­cially when there isn’t an agreed-upon uni­ver­sal way for­ward from a tech­ni­cal stand­point.

Player de­vel­op­ment

“I don’t think we have a style,” Gr­gic said. “As a fed­er­a­tion, we don’t have a style of soc­cer. You talk Ital­ians, they’re re­ally good tech­ni­cally. Spa­niards are good on the ball, and the move­ment off the ball is amaz­ing. Ger­mans are strong but very tech­ni­cal. I don’t know if we have a style.”

Kalic laments what seems to be a mind­set from those who fun­nel tal­ent from the grass­roots to the na­tional lev­els to pick ath­letes in­stead of play­ers — in other words, be­ing able to ex­cel on strength and speed in­stead of tech­ni­cal skill.

He said dur­ing his time with Ohio North and Re­gion 2, he was en­cour­aged to put play­ers on a larger field when he wanted a smaller grid to en­cour­age play­ers to find their foot skill and touches to get out of traf­fic in a tight set­ting.

“You can teach a horse to play soc­cer in a grid that big,” Kalic joked.

As a home­work ex­er­cise, Kalic en­cour­ages club play­ers to jug­gle a ball in the back­yard or off a wall to work on re­ac­tion, mus­cle mem­ory and touches on all parts of a foot.

“The joke in the soc­cer com­mu­nity is that if Lionel Messi grew up in Amer­ica, he’d have never made the na­tional team,” Kalic said. “He’s too small. And things like that, it’s scary.

“We’ve got to start look­ing at soc­cer play­ers — can the kid play?”

The U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion hopes to im­prove skill at the for­ma­tive ages of 6 to 12 with its new player de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tives. Among the de­sired changes are smaller-sided games — 4-on-4 with a field 35 yards long and 25 yards wide and a smaller ball and goal for 6- to 8-year-olds, for ex­am­ple, in­creas­ing to 7-on-7 and 9-on-9 on larger pitches for 9- to 12-year-olds.

“That’s a good start­ing point, but even­tu­ally, the game is 11 vs. 11,” Gr­gic said. “And on YouTube and all the chan­nels out there, you can see the Span­ish kids and Ital­ian kids at the age of 9 or 10, they’re play­ing 11 a side. The idea is to open it up to that big game.

“I think wait­ing un­til the age of 13 to play 11 vs. 11 is too late — my two cents. But there is def­i­nitely progress in the smaller-sided games.”

The way for­ward

Much of the way for­ward for Amer­i­can play­ers is con­tin­gent on op­por­tu­nity.

Croa­tia Ju­niors has es­tab­lished a home base at AOA, with an in­door fa­cil­ity al­ready built and one un­der con­struc­tion in the school’s for­mer eques­trian cen­ter.

On the open land out­side that was also part of the for­mer eques­trian cen­ter, the plan is to build more out­door soc­cer fields.

“Be­ing able to get the 5-, 6-, 7-year-old to learn the ba­sics of the game and stick with the game, love the game and then move into the club at­mos­phere — an af­ford­able club at­mos­phere that has a good back­ground and the coaches have a good back­ground in the sport — and to keep it af­ford­able, I think that’s the key,” Gr­gic said.

When other na­tional en­ti­ties failed, they had a plan.

Ger­many, af­ter go­ing win­less at the 2000 Eu­ros, em­barked on a long-term plan to im­prove the coun­try’s soc­cer tal­ent in part by di­vid­ing the na­tion into five re­gions to bet­ter iden­tify play­ers all over its na­tion. When the 1988 Win­ter Olympics were a medal dis­ap­point­ment for the U.S., the Stein­bren­ner Com­mis­sion in­sti­tuted guide­lines that are still used to this day for Olympic ath­letes.

Ev­ery­one agrees change is needed. It’s just a mat­ter of how. “The ques­tion of whether or not we’re in all of the right places with the game is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent,” Payne said. “I do think that our game would be bet­ter served by be­ing in­tro­duced at an early point in eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially chal­lenged neigh­bor­hoods, be­cause it’s tra­di­tion­ally out of those neigh­bor­hoods where many of the world’s best play­ers come from — not only in our sport, but in many, many sports.

“Those kids, ob­vi­ously, are hun­gry and look­ing for a way out. In many cases, whether the sport is bas­ket­ball or Amer­i­can foot­ball or base­ball or soc­cer or, in other coun­tries, it might be cricket or rugby, those kids see that sport as a way to get them into bet­ter cir­cum­stances. So yeah, we def­i­nitely need to do a bet­ter job of that.”


The United States women’s na­tional team walks out with youth soc­cer play­ers for a friendly against Switzer­land on Oct. 23, 2016, in Min­neapo­lis.


The Croa­tia Ju­niors’ in­door soc­cer fa­cil­ity is shown at An­drews Os­borne. Find­ing a way to get fields like this one more pop­u­lated with play­ers is a co­nun­drum at the lo­cal and na­tional lev­els.

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