Les Carpenter's article for the London-based Guardian on American youth soccer is headlined: ‘It’s only working for the white kids’: American soccer's diversity problem -- and it has gotten enough attention that it’s worth scrutinizing.
A decade ago when I researched the high cost of American youth soccer I aimed to explain one of the reasons why players from the Latino community, whose median income is lower than the average U.S. household income, were absurdly under-represented at the elite levels of American soccer. Especially considering the popularity of soccer in the Latino culture.
I started looking at the figures. What youth clubs charged per year, how much coaches got paid, what uniforms cost. How the best players were rewarded for their talent by being invited to even more expensive programs, including the “identification” events for colleges and the national team program.
If American basketball were run like youth (and college soccer), shutting out lower-income kids, I concluded, the USA wouldn’t be very good at hoops.
But I also saw that regardless of ethnicity, and even if your household didn’t qualify as “lower income,” it was very expensive for children to play soccer in the USA.
A decade later, youth soccer remains too expensive, but there has been a significant amount of progress in addressing the “diversity problem.” Some of which should have been hard to ignore for Carpenter, who last November wrote a Guardian article about the FC Dallas youth program. FC Dallas won the 2015 U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-16 national title with a team whose was roster was more than 50 percent Latino.
In fact, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy has vastly increased the opportunities for lower-income players to climb the ladder and has made elite youth soccer more diverse. While MLS clubs subsidize their academy programs so players don’t have to pay, U.S. Soccer’s financial aid program has paid out nearly $2 million in DA scholarship funds since 2008. U.S. Soccer’s nationwide network of Training Centers to identify players with youth national team potential are cost-free. Latinos comprised a third of the DA’s 66 all-conference selections for 2015-16 season and are well represented on DA clubs in areas with significant Hispanic communities.
Moreover, 13 percent of the Development Academy players are immigrants, born in more than 100 different nations, nearly 40 percent from Latin American countries.
It should be noted that reporters usually don’t write their own headlines, and “It’s only working for the white kids” came from a quote by Doug Andreassen, the chairman of U.S. Soccer’s diversity task force. I do agree, of course, that there is much work to be done to make youth soccer more inclusive. But various youth associations, a myriad non-profit programs, and the clubs, have been for quite a while working to address the pay-to-play problem.
Some of the solutions are unsatisfactory. The wealthier parents subsidizing the poorer kids, which works only until their own kids are on the bench. Clubs’ girls programs subsidizing the boys programs -- because you can win without lower-income girls but not without lower-income boys.
Some of the costs can be cut, such as unnecessary travel encouraged by the tournament industry. But the size of our country means that even when there are legitimate reasons to travel, it will be expensive.
And much of the cost problem isn’t the fault of the soccer community, but of U.S. society. Our fields are not free. I have been interviewed by foreign journalists on American pay-to-play youth soccer and gave an example of how a club had to spend $80,000 to make a public park’s grass playable, and how another had to raise $1 million for an artificial turf field. They were astounded that parents in the USA had to pay for the park where their kids play soccer.
In the USA, pretty much all our children’s activities turn into big business. In March, the Boston Globe reported that private tutoring and test preparation is a $12 billion industry. Last Sunday’s New York Times had an article headlined, “The Families That Can’t Afford Summer,” about how expensive summer camps and childcare has become.
We don’t have in American youth soccer a magic wand that could solve the pay-to-pay problem. And Carpenter’s extensive reporting -- he interviews such grassroots heroes Nick Lusson and Julio Borge, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer Foundation CEO Ed Foster-Simeon -- helps keep the light shining on an extremely important issue.
But the headline is not an accurate description of American youth soccer today. And Carpenter’s finale -- “Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?” -- will puzzle a large part of the U.S. soccer community that has been working very hard for a long time to improve U.S. youth soccer.