Kevin Payne (Q&A, Part 2): Competing groups create dynamism

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Longtime MLS executive Kevin Payne served as D.C. United president during its golden years of the 1990s and has also held key positions with U.S. Soccer. Payne became U.S. Club Soccer’s CEO in January. U.S. Club Soccer, which gained U.S. Soccer Federation membership in 2001, has member clubs and leagues in all 50 states, runs national and state cup competitions, a player identification program (id2) and sanctions the girls Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). Read Part 1 of our interview HERE.

SOCCER AMERICA: We spoke about U.S. Club Soccer providing resources for its clubs’ coaches from nations with successful player development resources. Which countries are you looking at?

KEVIN PAYNE: We’re talking with people in Spain about a longer-term relationship that could bring some coaching development resources here on a regular basis.

We’ll look at Germany as well. I’ve had some conversations with the Bundesliga.

We certainly are looking to partner with MLS and their Academy teams and through MLS connect with the FFF [French soccer federation].

I definitely also want to explore opportunities to work with clubs from South America. That’s a place I hold near and dear. Our id2 team is currently in Argentina for a series of matches against some of the best clubs in Buenos Aires. We’ll be talking with several of those clubs about the possibility of some sort of partnership where they can bring some of their top youth development experts up to the States.

They do a remarkable job of developing individual players.

SA: How can what other countries do at the youth level really be applied to American soccer?

KEVIN PAYNE: The whole idea there is not necessarily a single right way of doing this, but I think there are common features in many of the more successful ways. This is still America and we have coaches and players from many different backgrounds here.

We have our own unique set of problems and opportunities. And I think we need to be trying to develop an American way of doing this and I think that will develop best as a result of aggregating information from lots of different successful programs.

SA: One of the issues facing U.S. Club teams, at least in Northern California, is the rate at which new clubs have been sanctioned has created turf wars, resulting in conflicts over field access, lawsuits and a drain of resources to manage these challenges. What role should U.S. Club Soccer play in managing these conflicts?

KEVIN PAYNE: We’re certainly aware of those, and that’s probably more of an issue in Northern California where U.S. Club Soccer has such a large presence.

We certainly encourage everyone to find ways to collaborate and not go to war with each other. I’m trying to preach within our staff and to our members that we need to be collaborate with our peers not have war.

We don’t want to waste a lot of time on negative energy. At the national level, we can’t necessarily control those things. That’s not the way we're organized and structured, which is somewhat by design, because we don’t want to be a large government bureaucracy. Those are really issues that need to be resolved locally. The extent that we become involved is always to encourage them to find a reasonable solution that accommodates the needs of both parties as best as possible.

SA: What's your opinion on what is best for youth development -- the trend of soccer communities splintering with the breaking off of newly formed clubs or the process of existing clubs merging to form larger entities?

KEVIN PAYNE: Without making any unilateral decisions and without throwing a blanket over the whole issue, we do not encourage parts of clubs to break away and form new clubs and join US Club Soccer. Our ideal for clubs, whether large or small -- we love see the development of more clubs that provide engagement from the very earliest ages up to adult level so there’s sort of a lifelong attachment, a generational engagement with the club.

Obviously having elements of the club break away because someone’s unhappy about something is not particularly productive. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some cases where it is the best thing. In general, without “outlawing” that, we try and discourage it. It’s not what we consider a productive use of time.

SA: Do you feel it's still in the best interest of youth soccer in the United States to have competing youth soccer organizations? I often hear from coaches and club directors that they’d prefer a unified youth model instead of the alphabet soup of organizations …

KEVIN PAYNE: I don’t really agree with that at all. I think that there’s quite a bit of dynamism that’s encouraged by having different youth soccer organizations. And there are different philosophies at work.

AYSO has a very particular philosophy. So do we. US Youth Soccer is a different sort of organization, which is really a governmental agency. That approach tends to inform many of their decisions. There’s a place for different points of view.

The only advantage to having a unitary approach is to clean up the competition calendar. You could argue you might have greater efficiency in coaching and instruction. But it’s more likely there’d be a particular orthodoxy that’d be imposed on everyone.

SA: What’s your assessment of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which was founded in 2007?

KEVIN PAYNE: I still chair the U.S. Soccer Technical Committee but I chaired the Task Force on Boys Player Development when we originated the Academy so I was pretty involved with that. I totally agree with the philosophy of the Academy.

But there are things I have agreed with and there are things I have disagreed with.

Philosophically -- this is not a jurisdiction issue -- I think it’s a big mistake to try to develop Academy teams at the younger ages. I think one of the critical areas that has hampered U.S. national team development over many, many years has been a tendency to sort of what I call close the tent flaps too early and kind of anoint a certain relatively small number of players as being the national team pool and then not retaining an open mind.

I personally think it’s dangerous with the U-17s. I think it’s unbelievably dangerous at the U-12 level. There’s nobody in the world who would tell you they’re smart enough to know who the players are at 10 and 11 years old who are going to emerge as full-fledged professionals.

But having said that, I 100 percent agreed with and still agree with the premises of the Academies and the idea that we needed to control the environment to a far greater extent for the top, top players. It’s a very very small percentage of players who are in that environment and they need to be in the best possible environment.


KEVIN PAYNE: On ECNL, I was not involved at all. That was done sort of privately, not undertaken by U.S. Soccer. Our organization [U.S. Club Soccer] sanctions them and we have a very close relationship with the ECNL and I think ECNL has done a great job fulfilling the same role as the Development Academy has on the boys side. And I hope that ECNL’s relationship with the Federation will continue.

SA: Any final words on something that shouldn’t be happening in American youth soccer?

KEVIN PAYNE: You still have clubs in the U.S. who will be resentful if one of their players goes to play for an MLS team’s Academy … and they’ll talk about boycotting MLS games.

That would never happen in Munich or Manchester or Barcelona. That thought wouldn’t cross people’s minds.

'Clubs are the building blocks' (Kevin Payne Q&A, Part 1)

8 comments about "Kevin Payne (Q&A, Part 2): Competing groups create dynamism".
  1. Brian Steel, March 6, 2015 at 8:54 a.m.

    I believe Kevin is a strong business / structure building leader and I agree with about 1/2 of his views. I especially agree with his view that we "close the tent flaps" way too early on the National Pools for both girls and boys. Once US Soccer decides to invest in the first pool they seem to stick with the player pool at an abnormally high percentage. There is no chance on earth they are right on 80%+ of the National Team players from U15 onward but that is the approximate percentage of retained players in the pool year over year.

    I 100% disagree with his view that USYSA and US Club Soccer running two competing models is good for youth Soccer. With the DA and ECNL thrown into the mix there are (3) separate structures and leagues on both the girls side and the boys side of youth soccer. The redundancy of overhead costs, operating costs, scheduling issues (many players are in more than one of the three offerings) creates an absurd amount of financial waste in US Youth Soccer. It would be interesting to have a consulting / audit firm calculate the true cost of financial inefficiency this causes in US youth Soccer. Money that could go toward development, education, fields, inner city programs etc!

  2. Raymond Weigand, March 6, 2015 at 12:19 p.m.

    Huh? "US Youth Soccer is a different sort of organization, which is really a governmental agency." Perhaps I already found one of the 'constraints' to improvement. I get the sense this guy has no idea and confirms my suspicions with comments like,
    "We have our own unique set of problems and opportunities. And I think we need to be trying to develop an American way of doing this and I think that will develop best as a result of aggregating information from lots of different successful programs." Is this the shopping cart approach? Just throw a bunch of stuff into a cart and maybe we will figure out what we can make with all this stuff? Good luck.

  3. Kent James, March 6, 2015 at 1:16 p.m.

    Brian, you got it exactly right. The early identification excludes too many worthy players. I think you're right about Paynes abilities as well. What I find ironic is that US Club Soccer discourages people from breaking away from clubs to form their own, when, at least in my area, the whole reason US Club soccer exists is because some clubs didn't like the way US soccer was limiting them so they broke away to join US Club. And again, it is ironic that Payne spoke about clubs getting too competitive at too young an age, because the disagreement that inspired the clubs to break away was over US Soccer preventing them from putting young players in a "select" (tryout, focus on winning) environment at the youngest ages.

  4. Mark Torguson, March 6, 2015 at 2:03 p.m.

    Good comments from above posters. I am a little confused with his last sentence about clubs unhappy with their players being poached by Academy clubs. First I would think US Club soccer would be protecting their clubs and second, is Man City giving their best 17 year old to United? Is Rayo Vallecano giving their best 17 year to Barcelona? Is 1860 giving their best 17 year to Bayern for free.......? My guess is no, but that is exactly what clubs here are expected to do.

  5. Clayton Davis, March 6, 2015 at 2:44 p.m.

    I agree with Mr. Payne that there are both benefits and costs to having competing youth organizations, although considering the problems in our large country we have with travel, I would think that having all the teams in one area in the same organization would be a tremendous advantage for getting the best players to play the most games at the highest level possible.

    I like that he is trying to bring in styles from multiple countries, including Latin styles and European ones. Surely this is the best thing for a country such as ours and its boring when everybody plays the same style. Note that he didn't mention partnership with UK organizations, a sign of the times.

  6. Ric Fonseca, March 6, 2015 at 3:42 p.m.

    Good comments overall, however, Mr. Payne doesn't seem to be too well rounded and knowledegable regarding the original concepts and philosophy of ayso that was born in Southern California, concepts and philosophy that has not changed since its inception. First, it was made up of expats from the UK and the continent (and I still see many of those well-meaning guys around, but whose support for the organization has waned) and as it gradually grew and expanded into wealthy suburbia, it eschewed the inner city kids until the late '80s and early '90s. I could go on and on about ayso, however, Mr. Payne has keenly forgotten that ayso filed a lawsuit against US Soccer and US Youth Soccer that almost went to trial. Why? ayso contended with something having to do with the US Olympic charter (forgive me but I don't remember the sticking points) and that ayso should be granted full US Soccer membership instead of being an affiliate. Why do I mention this? Because ayso was originally a very exclusive and lacked any foresight of being an inclusive youth organization until the threat of a lawsuit raised its ugly head. Just ask some other youth soccer organizations here in SoCal and I am sure some of the veteranos can fill several tomes of youth soccer history. So why this bit of history? I do agree that the mishmash and alphabet soup of soccer bodies could work only and IF they got together and ironed out their differences, but Mr. Payne must take off his rose colored glasses and do some serious traveling across the width and breadth of the country, especially in the heavily Latino populated inner cities and he will see what US Club Soccer is faced with and must make his organization very INCLUSIVE and not fall into the ayso frame of mind! Good luck with this venture!

  7. Wesley Hunt, March 8, 2015 at 11:16 a.m.

    On the "closing the tent flaps" that is selecting players as young as U12 for academy teams that Mr. Payne objects to I have a couple of observations. First U12 and younger players are selected for academy training by clubs all the time in Europe and South America. Scouts and trainers are paid good money to find these potential future players to train and I would assume that their selections are at least a little better than chance else they would not keep their jobs.

  8. Wesley Hunt, March 8, 2015 at 11:46 a.m.

    Lets follow the money. The difference in America is in time scale for success. Here it is about winning the next U10-12-14 academy tournament. Why is this important? It brings in more customers in the form of money paying parents who are judging the training the academies offer by the record of their youth teams. With European professional team academies the money is at the end of the process. They train the player from a young age for pretty much nothing and only get their money back from that work when a certain percentage of those players are good enough to sign contracts as professionals between 16 and 20 years of age. If your goal is to win tournaments playing soccer with kids U17 and under then pick the big fast kids and early developers. They can help you win right away. It is more like picking a two year old race horse than a potential highly skilled player. If your goal is that finished individual player then you are picking potential for the future. Late developers and small skilled players with lots of drive and good attitude are not so easily overlooked if you you are not under pressure to win right away. The focus can be truly on development because not only is your time line for success longer, the success is measured by the number and quality of those professional players you produced rather than the state cups or national tournaments that are won.

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