Interview by Mike Woitalla
This year marks the 10th anniversary of U.S. Club Soccer, which since gaining U.S. Soccer Federation membership in 2001 has served as an alternative to U.S. Youth Soccer. We spoke with U.S. Club Soccer chairman Phil Wright about the past, present and future of the organization that now has member clubs and leagues in 50 states, runs national and state cup competitions, a player identification program (id2) and the girls Elite Clubs National League (ECNL).
SOCCER AMERICA: I’ve heard it said that U.S. Club Soccer’s aim is to drive U.S. Youth Soccer out of business. …
PHIL WRIGHT: That’s never been our goal. That’s not our goal today. We started out as a lobbying body just trying to effectuate some changes in USYS, which didn’t seem to have listening ears.
I think it’s important to say that many people in USYS have the same goals for soccer in this country as those of us at U.S. Club Soccer.
There are many wonderful people in USYS who love the game, give countless hours to the game trying to work on player development. I think we have more in common than we have differences.
SA: What are the differences?
PHIL WRIGHT: I think the biggest difference is structure. They have a huge bureaucracy and they have 55 different associations and it’s very hard to get things done. It’s very hard to have a commonality in 55 different state associations with a huge bureaucracy.
We have very little bureaucracy. We have a staff of 17 to 19 people. We really count on our local partners, our clubs and local regions to help us with what works in their region.
We try to be very flexible and try to adapt. We make as many mistakes as USYS. The difference is we can fix our mistakes really quickly.
SA: What drove the creation of U.S. Club Soccer?
PHIL WRIGHT: U.S. Club Soccer grew out of a meeting the U.S. Soccer Federation had in 2000 when they brought in directors of coaching from different size clubs from different parts of the country that had all put a number of players on the youth national teams.
They wanted to talk us about player development. What were we doing that we managed to develop so many players for the youth national teams and what did the Federation need to do develop more players.
Out of that there came a recognition that we needed to form an organization that was club-centric. Our belief was that clubs develop players, well-run clubs develop good players -- so we needed to provide an avenue to developing more successful clubs in the country. That’s how we started.
SA: How different is U.S. Club Soccer than you would have imagined it to be a decade ago?
PHIL WRIGHT: We’ve changed radically over the 10 years.
We started out with the intent of being a lobby -- just to really lobby for change in the game with USYS and the Federation.
We discovered pretty quickly that without being able to register players and competitions, we really had no clout, and we were not getting listened to at all. We weren’t effectuating any changes.
That’s when we hired Bill Sage as our CEO to get us through the political steps of becoming part of the Federation, being able to register players and having competitions.
We needed to have some sort of program for the league players, and the one thing we really disliked about our competitor was the cost of ODP. So we went – which is also part of our style – and asked the Federation, “What can we do to help?”
We’re proud members of the Federation. Not because we agree with everything the Federation does, but we believe if you’re part of the organization you should support it.
They said they really needed help identifying 12- and 13-year-olds – so we started our id2 program with the idea that it would not cost the kids anything.
SA: What about the impact of the USSF in 2007 launching the Development Academy league on the boys side?
PHIL WRIGHT: We were marching along in a growth pattern and we were involved in the process of helping the Federation develop the Academy program. Quite frankly, we thought they would probably have us run the Academy. Most of the clubs in the Academy were our members. The Federation chose to do it themselves. We were disappointed. We disagreed with them on it, but that was the decision they made.
That has caused us to make changes because it’s taken many of the top clubs out of our organization. …
Now we’ve got to help build what’s under the Academy. So that’s our current focus. The national premier leagues, taking those clubs that are not in the Academy, building quality regional leagues throughout the country, which would be feeders into the Academy, and doing pre-Academy age groups, which may or may not have Academy clubs in them. …
We’ve had to be very much like an entrepreneurial business. We’ve had to adjust two or three times. So we’re not where we’d thought we’d be because the landscape has changed significantly.
SA: At its beginnings, U.S. Club Soccer’s mission appeared to be to serve the very elite clubs, but it has since expanded into to pretty much all levels of American youth soccer …
PHIL WRIGHT: It’s broader because there was a recognition that elite clubs have to have connections with the grassroots. Without that connection we all just become clubs that steal players. We didn’t think that was really our ideal model and certainly not the only model. There needs to be a place for clubs to develop players, so we did expand into the recreational area.
The point that I want to stress is we didn’t do this for economic reasons. It wasn’t, “Oh good, we can get a bunch more kids and get money.” It was that we need to have some of these 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds connected to these elite clubs for development purposes.
SA: In my interviews with youth club leaders, there’s a near consensus among them wanting just one entity, i.e., the U.S. Soccer Federation, running the youth game -- instead of what they see as a turf war. Is there an upside to competing organizations?
PHIL WRIGHT: Generally, competition can be a positive. I think we have made the other organizations better. And they in turn have probably made us better.
But I wouldn’t disagree with those statements that at some point it would be beneficial for it to come together.
Essentially, at some point it would great to have one entity running all soccer in the U.S. and, in my opinion, that entity should be the U.S. Soccer Federation. That being said, the competition U.S. Club Soccer has created has been good for the game at this time.
Our model may be the best chance of getting some things done that need to be done. Once that happens, it might make sense for U.S. Soccer to take over.
SA: What’s an example of how U.S. Club Soccer improved how the youth game is organized in the USA?
PHIL WRIGHT: When we launched, we hired a business partner to run the business side of things and we told them we want this to be 21st century.
You have to be able to get passes off the computer. You have to be able to get stuff fast. Paperless to the extent possible. Online background checks. … That has created change.
Other organizations realized "we better go there, too."
SA: Why do you think that U.S. Club Soccer succeeded in attracting clubs to play under its umbrella?
PHIL WRIGHT: We introduced flexibility, such as club passes so players could play up in their clubs and come back down. ...
I’m from Northern California. I played CYSA. My youth coach is a CYSA Hall of Famer. But [CYSA-North] was almost the poster child why U.S. Club Soccer was created. You had nine districts and the rules were if I wanted to call up my friend Ben Ziemer and have a friendly over in Sonoma, I had to get permission from my commissioner and he had to get permission from his commissioner – just to go play a friendly.
They made it very easy for U.S. Club to really grow in Northern California because they had so many rules that didn’t serve any purpose.
SA: If you had a magic wand, how would you use it to improve youth soccer in America?
PHIL WRIGHT: If I had a magic wand, players wouldn’t be paying to play competitive soccer. That’s really the biggest problem we have. Players are paying too much money, so we’re losing players we shouldn’t lose.
SA: Is there a solution without a magic wand?
PHIL WRIGHT: We have to create more fans so that MLS becomes successful economically.
And then more MLS clubs will have free youth programs, and I think eventually the MLS clubs will have satellite youth clubs.
So the San Jose Earthquakes will have Earthquakes in San Jose, but they’ll have Earthquakes in Sacramento, in Santa Rosa, Fresno … And the Galaxy and Chivas will have a bunch of satellite clubs, because we’ve made the game economically successful.
This is the potential long-term solution, which might make some club directors unhappy.
SA: And how can youth clubs help make MLS successful economically?
PHIL WRIGHT: I’ve always told my competitive brothers and sisters, pay attention to our recreational players. That’s our fan base. We have more than 3 million players in this country, but we don’t have 3 million competitive players.
In the rest of the world, if you have 100,000 fans in the stadium, it’s not 100,000 competitive soccer players. There’s probably 2,000. The other 98,000 were very average players, but they loved the game.
We can make more soccer fans by the way we teach the game when they’re 6, 7, 8, 9.
To give the kids the love for the game it’s really important to expose them to someone who has that passion for the game -- and hopefully that’s the people who are involved in our clubs.
(Phil Wright has served as a U.S. Club Soccer Board of Directors Chairman since 2003. He is a USSF A licensed coach and the former President and Director of Coaching at San Juan Soccer Club in Sacramento, Calif. He was named NSCAA National Youth Coach of the Year in 1997 in the competitive boys category.)
(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.)