How to fix soccer in the United States
Local, national figures seek answers to fix sport in United States after World Cup debacle
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.”
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.
“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.