Youth clubs try to generate revenue to support their ambitions by appealing to players whose families are willing to pay higher fees. The competition for players and in some cases, "warm bodies," is exposing a major chink in youth soccer armor.
Club soccer is finding some growth through mergers and acquisitions. That path is likely to reveal that as clubs get larger, they become more like their competition rather than distinctive. Make no mistake - youth soccer is now big business. Some club administrators and directors of coaching have become wealthy from youth soccer. Revenues derived from youth soccer fund real estate acquisitions, indoor facilities, and major sports complexes.
I am not criticizing the fact that people have found ways to profit from their passion. My concern is how the profit motive affects the way clubs evolve. Some "elite" and "premier" teams exist to fuel revenue growth and to cater to parents whose egos insist their child play on a team of distinction.
It is my experience that teams that would have a hard time earning a "B" classification a few years ago are overrunning the highest level of play. Clubs justify the formation and placement of these teams by suggesting that "playing up" as a unit will make them stronger players. They contend the drubbing these teams take against legitimate elite or premier teams is a temporary condition overcome in a couple of years.
The launch of U.S. Soccer Development Academy sounds like a long overdue antidote.
U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) will rightly segregate the elite players, and provide them a reasonable training schedule. Although I have always been a critic of the Olympic Development Program (ODP) system, the USSDA should open the ranks to more children at the ODP level, and perhaps it will lead to the needed overhaul there.
I anticipate a "trickle down" affect to all this. USSDA is now the elite player territory. Non-USSDA clubs must create an experience that relies on something other than the promise of national prominence. I interact with many club presidents, coaching directors, and key administrators. Repeatedly, they state club goals in two ways - "To compete for national championships," and "To move the club to the 'next level." By today's standards, the "next level" usually means membership enrollment (revenue), won/loss records, and highly paid coaches/trainers.
These goals speak more to coaching and revenue ambitions than to the development of club programs. While many clubs will continue to seek this type of recognition, it will be clear they are doing so without the most elite players.
Revenue drives soccer clubs today despite claims of "for the love of the game." The challenge for any business is running it in a way that distinguishes it from its competition. Leaders of most soccer clubs are finding distinctiveness is not their expertise. They continue to chase the false prophets of "win more" and "recruit better" instead of delivering a unique experience to their members.
USSDA will separate the truly premier clubs from the "want to be." This puts enormous pressure on clubs that are not part of the USSDA program to do a better job of creating a meaningful experience for members who now clearly do not play at the highest level. The majority of players, parents, and volunteers fall into this category.
Clubs that address member satisfaction, and exceed expectations in stakeholder experiences are more likely to survive the shakeout that I predict will occur. Players and parents will express their loyalty to a club's brand for reasons beyond elite status, salaries paid to staff, won/loss records, or trophies acquired.
Jim Paglia is a nationally recognized brand strategist who lives outside Chicago. He has an extensive background in soccer ranging from the NASL, to NCAA Division I, to World Cup 1994, and 30 years of club administration and coaching.