Interview by Mike Woitalla
The Youth Soccer Insider continues its series in which we ask the leaders of U.S. youth clubs to address key issues on the state of American youth soccer. Charlie Slagle is Chief Executive of the North Carolina's Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), a "full-service club" with 9,000 registered players. Before taking charge at CASL, which was founded in 1974, Slagle was head coach at NCAA Division I Davidson College, from 1980 to 2000.
SOCCER AMERICA: CASL is both a club and a league -- what you call a "full-service club." What’s the advantage of being such a large organization, with some 800 teams?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: We have a recreational league and a middle league, which is called our Challenge League, and at the top level we have Classic teams.
We start seeing kids at 5 years old and they work all the way through. Once they start with us, more than likely they stay with us. Obviously there are exceptions.
The advantage is we don’t have to turn anyone away, ever. We can cut someone and they might not like it, but if we cut somebody from Classic, they can play in Challenge. If we cut someone from Challenge, they can play in recreational. We have recreational all the way up to under-18.
SA: So the setup creates a lower dropout rate?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: I think it does. We have kids who are playing Challenge and they’ll try out for the next level up, but if they don’t make it, they have friends playing in the level below and a lot continue to play.
SA: Have you seen significant improvements in youth coaching?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: It’s improved. A lot more of the parent-coaches, people coaching at the rec level and just above that, have played -- whereas 20 years, 15 years ago that percentage was a lot lower.
Now that there are so many people who played through high school or college, or even the club level up till they’re 13 or 14, they have an idea of what’s going on. With a little bit of training on the methodology -- not to have kids stand around – they know how to make practices and games fun.
SA: Will playing soccer continue to become more expensive or is any relief on the horizon? And what is your club doing to reduce or minimize costs?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: Other than cost-of-living increases, soccer costs are probably not going to go up too much more.
The biggest thing is the travel and those taking the brunt of that are the very best teams.
We take in sponsors and our tournaments help out a little bit.
Our Chelsea sponsorship limits or pays for all of the travel of our U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams. We’re doing the same with the ECNL -- the national girls league – and trying to get more and more sponsorship and give that money back to the parents.
The more we can help them out the better. The less they pay the better as they decide between this club and that club.
SA: The Super Y-league, U.S. Club Soccer and the U.S. Development Academy have joined U.S. Youth Soccer in the youth arena over the last decade. Has the increase in options for youth clubs benefited America's young players?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: Yes and no. At a club like CASL, we’re competitive nationally, we can pick and choose. ECNL for our girls and the [U.S. Soccer] Academy for our boys. Then our second teams and third teams fit very nicely in USYS or in U.S. Club Soccer.
We are mainly a member of North Carolina Youth Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer, through NCYSA. We pick and choose and that’s where having soccer-savvy folks making the decisions is very important.
What actually hurts development is I don’t think we’re heading up the width of the pyramid and narrowing it down. I think that sometimes because there are too many options some of the best players are playing in situations where they’re not playing against the best players, therefore not getting as good as they could be. That may hurt us national team-wise.
SA: Should the U.S. Soccer Federation create a Development Academy league for girls as it did for the boys in 2007?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: I would think in fairness, yes, but ECNL, which is a U.S. Club property, is doing it now and doing a good job of it.
Would it be that they take over ECNL? When the Academy came out [for boys] they started recruiting clubs and could do it. Now they would be recruiting clubs that are already playing ECNL, so there could be a bit a war going on.
SA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?
CHARLIE SLAGLE: There would be one entity that controls everything and did a couple different things:
One, make it so the top players are getting sifted toward the top of the pyramid, so that all the top players are playing against other top clubs.
Two, I think our national teams are also hurt by the single-year age brackets. When you have a superstar at age 15 and have a chance to win the under-15 title, most clubs and coaches are going to keep that under-15 player playing in that age bracket. Whereas for his or her benefit it might be better to play in the under-17s, playing against bigger, stronger players, and they have to adjust their game and get better.
Having all these national championship at single-year age brackets – those kids don’t learn different roles. If they’re the star of that team, they’re going to be the star at 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18.
I wouldn’t mind seeing, not necessarily across the board, but some sort competition where 16 through 18, maybe 13-15, 14-16 on a team, and you have to have so many of each age on the team, sort of like the Little League baseball model where the younger players are on the field with older players. That would improve our players. …
The USSF needs to do something that gets us all going in the same direction for the common good, because if you leave it up to club directors like myself, we have to hang our hat on winning this championship or doing this or doing that. And I think we're tugging against each other too much.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)