Soccer

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Is the Youth Soccer Model to Blame for the Failure of the U.S. Men's National Team?

1 Nov, 2017

By: Michael Popke

And the hits just keep on coming. In this case, it’s the blows being dealt far and wide as fallout continues from the United States Men’s National Soccer Team failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup — the first time that’s happened since 1986. Now, it’s spilling over into discontent with the youth soccer model. Here’s what event owners should know – and be prepared to respond to.

Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association took the first opportunity to shine an unwelcome spotlight on youth soccer. According to SGBOnline.com, participation is slipping, and Cove “attributes much of the erosion in participation to the costs around youth sports, including ‘pay to play’ demands marked by paid coaches, travel teams and other expenses. … Soccer among youth is not gaining traction with Latinos and kids in urban centers in general, likely due to the financial hurdles. Soccer youth participation heavily skews toward kids from households over $100,000.”

“You don’t need a lot of money to play soccer,” Cove said. “You need a ball and shoes, and you can even make up a ball. And you can play anywhere. But we’re pricing kids out of youth sports for a variety of reasons. … We need to become more local, more affordable, more welcoming of different cultures and socioeconomic classes. More sports open for all.”

Cove also said Team USA’s failure to advance will be a “disaster for [soccer] on several levels” — including from a business perspective. “We see sales grow as much around the World Cup as in any other major sporting event, including the Super Bowl and the Olympics,” he told SGBOnline.com. “So it’s a terrible disappoint[ment] for our business and really dampens what otherwise would have been a gangbuster time in 2018.”

The fact that organized sports are priced out of reach for many families was supported by a survey from the Sports Fitness Association, showing poorer households were less likely to be active.

Kevin Payne, vice chairman of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, had some different ideas concerning player development, which he voiced in an interview with Soccer America Daily. Payne, who weighed in on various issues within the youth soccer model (and generated plenty of reader comments for the article in the process), saw problems with the country's entire system of creating a player pipeline.

"In my opinion, their approach to this has been too narrow. They believe they can identify the top one percent or whatever percentage of players it is at 11 years old and pull them into an academy and they don’t really care about the rest of them. I don’t think that’s well-founded based on research of athlete development, but I also don’t think it’s the right way for the federation to respond to its responsibilities."

Additionally, he belives the academy system itself is flawed, and says that in a recent meeting he attended with soccer thought leaders, there was agreement that "the academy programs needed to do more than just draw the best soccer players from the surrounding community. They also needed to help the soccer community at-large to improve."

Presently, a rule exists that states an academy soccer player is not allowed to play for a high school team something Payne finds problematic since young athletes may want the enjoyable experience of representing their school and playing alongside their friends and classmates.

"I think they should be allowed the choice," he notes. "When I was chairing the committee and we introduced the academy, we made it that basically they had a choice. And we said we don’t think it’s the best thing from a soccer standpoint but we understand that socially it can be important. The kid that’s really on track to be a high-level pro and maybe a national-team player, they’re probably going to make that decision for themselves. They don’t want to risk injury. They’d like to play their friends in high school but they realize they can’t risk that and waste that time."

The fact that soccer has become a serious choice for youth players, he notes, is a problem adults have created, and it feeds into the overall lack of player development.

"I don’t think there are many parents who sit around the dinner table at night and think, ‘How can we make soccer a really awful experience for our kids?’ But they manage to do it and they enter into this unspoken, unholy alliance with their coaches. The adults establish the agenda and they make game not fun for the kids, and the kids leave and people wonder why. Well it’s not fun anymore. You don’t need tons of research to know that kids play sports because it’s fun. They play sports because they like doing things with their friends. They like the camaraderie. They like to be valued. They like the idea that their friends are relying on them to hold up their responsibility to their team. When you have an environment in which they’re being told they’re not doing that or they don’t get to play or they’re being screamed at by the parents and micro-managed by the coach and criticized for every mistake, who wouldn’t quit?"

Youth soccer does not know how to respond, or does not know how yet, but it can hardly be blamed, note pundits, who say there's not even enough directions from the higher-ups.

As a whole, USA Soccer is not prepared. They have not done a good enough job of getting this group to play,” ranted ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman. “This is an utter embarrassment. If this failure does not wake up everyone from USA Soccer, from Major League Soccer, from pay to play to everything, then we’re all insane. Because the definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing, knowing the result.”

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