By Joe Cannon
Listening to my twin brother tell me about the local soccer club scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, I realized this was a problem not restricted to his family. With AYSO, Cal North, NorCal, ECNL and the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy, parents are overwhelmed with where to place or what to do with their aspiring little Messis, Ronaldos or Donovans.
In my brother's case, it's his oldest son, Jace. Jace is 5 years old and is looking for a soccer club to help him get started in the sport. Not only are there so many programs, but there are so many parents with so many different opinions. Which one is right? Where will my son or daughter want to play? Will they be happy? Coaches, parents, and everyone in it seem to have an opinion on everything.
Being the son of a former pro baseball player, and a nephew of pro soccer player, Jace has some pretty heavy shoes to fill. As my little nephew, you think his path would be straightforward: AYSO, Mountain View Los Altos Soccer Club, then on to Santa Clara University and end up with the San Jose Earthquakes, just like his uncle right? Well not so fast … times have changed.
With the popularity of the sport, the competition for a parents’ dollar is fierce. Camps, academies, club teams, programs, and individual training sessions are readily available for parents to choose from. Which one? How much? What is a parent to do?
Below are a few steps parents should take before they decide. Also, feel free to leave a comment below if you have any further questions. As someone who has been involved with youth soccer for over 30 years (playing, coaching, organizing, etc), I look forward to helping parents and friends looking for the right program to start or re-start their interest in the beautiful game.
1. Start your little one in a semi-public program. The program won't matter as much as the people running it. Introducing your child to the sport is the small first step we need to take. I played soccer for four to five years before I really started to love the game. There are many programs that cater to children who are young, and whose parents just need a little rest.
2. If your little angel still loves playing, I would suggest looking at recreational soccer. My first three years of the sport, I played in the American Youth Soccer Organization. Without the efforts of AYSO, and other soccer recreational programs, the seeds of MLS would have never been planted. These programs give your child their first real team soccer experience.
3. If little junior is ripping it up in the recreation leagues, it's time to move them to a more competitive environment. "Select soccer" is what we called it back in my day, but now there are so many more options. Asking other parents helps, but lots of them will be biased toward their own coaches and clubs.
The best is to try and reach out to prominent people in your soccer area. College and high school soccer coaches, prominent area soccer figures, and even research done on Internet forums can all equip a parent to be in a better position regarding club choice.
You can google NSCAA or U.S. Soccer and contact a representative. It might take awhile, but both organizations can eventually lead you to the right select team, league, or club.
4. So you've made it to club and your teen is thriving. Elite clubs, such as those in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and ECNL, are scattered all across the United States. You may have to drive your child hours away if you live in a small town.
To help prepare your child for tryouts, have someone from these academies, a coach or trainer, see your child individually and work with them. There is nothing a coach wants to see more than some kid they work with get better. If you reach out to academy coaches, trainers or someone tied to the club who does individual training sessions, that's a great place to start.
5. So let's say we've gotten this far and your son or daughter is doing well with the elite team. There are many types of children but let's place them into three categories. First, the superstar. In this case, colleges will already be contacting you or your team's coaches and asking about their intentions. It's easy for the parents because the schools come to them. Second, the burned-out player. They like soccer but don't love it, and they really just want to go to school and work on their education or whatever passion other than soccer that drives them. Finally, there are the kids in between.
This kid was me. I was good at soccer, but not the all-star. I blossomed late so the only colleges that sent letters were ones from far off distant lands or small schools who just got my name out of a database.
Here's the thing, colleges have no clue which kids want to attend their schools. Sit down with Tommy or Tina and figure out where they want to go to school, what type of school, what type of soccer program (Division I to NAIA) and start contacting coaches.
Don't wait on this part. Don't be like me and wait around for the coaches to call and want you! This is your dream and your goal right? Ask yourself how bad you want to take this next step. If you have the talent and the belief, you can go far.
(Joe Cannon recently retired after a 16-season MLS career during which he played more than 350 games and garnered two Goalkeeper of the Year and two Humanitarian of the Year honors. Follow Joe on Twitter at @JoeCannonGK1.)