Commentary

Boston seeks unity to grapple with big-city youth soccer challenges

By Aiden Teplitzky Dobens

Kids who want to play youth soccer within the city of Boston face a calamitous and disjointed mess.

With 3 million registered youth soccer players in the USA in 2014 representing an 89 percent increase since 1990, the sport is progressing rapidly, and yet the city of Boston is being left behind.

“We’re in the dark ages,” says Ian Mulliner. Mulliner, a Manchester, England native, is the technical director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Organization (MYSA). MYSA is based in Lancaster, Massachusetts, which is over an hour drive outside of Boston. While this is centrally located within the state, it’s impossible for any children in Boston to consistently get to. “There’s no one whose job it is to run Boston. I have to handle a whole state, the infrastructure just isn’t there,” Mulliner says.


Photo courtesy of South End Soccer

While Mulliner is 50 miles away, Jon Rudzinski works on the front lines of Boston as the head of Jamaica Plains Youth Soccer. “Why, in the middle of the biggest city in New England are we not large enough? We’re all volunteers. We just can’t do enough, it’s unbelievable,” he said. All coaches, and even Rudzinski, have other full-time jobs. Most coaches are parents with little to no formal coaching experience.

So how did we get here? What are the issues that Boston faces as a city for the development of youth soccer?

The first obstacle is always: where does the money come from? In Europe, every major city has at least one large professional club, whose academy is always the goal for any aspiring young player. These academies know it’s within their best interest to find talent and bring them into the first team, thus they invest large sums in building infrastructures in the community that benefit both the players and themselves. Academies in Barcelona and Amsterdam go so far as to have boarding school programs where the students simultaneously go to school and train.

The issue in Massachusetts is, our Barcelona or Ajax is the New England Revolution of the MLS. FC Barcelona was founded in 1899, while the Revolution was founded in 1995. The winner of the UEFA Champions League gets $16 million, while the winner of the North American Concacaf Champions League gets $500,000. It will take another 20 years before the New England Revolution can start building any infrastructure to rival Europe.

But what about the U.S. Soccer Federation? Surely it has money, and it’s within its best interests to improve youth soccer. If anything, it should be its top priority.

We spoke with Woodley Auguste, the director of youth soccer for the Boston Parks and Recreation department, about the city's relationship with U.S. Soccer. Auguste recently took over as soccer director, having worked in basketball for the past eight years. He explained that they applied for a grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation, and they were approved for $15,000.

When an organization is awarded a grant by U.S. Soccer, the organization has to prove that the money is directly improving youth soccer in the community. The issue, Auguste explained, is that it’s often very difficult to quantify success, so they invest in shorter-term projects that may have less of a lasting impact, just so they can prove to U.S. Soccer that they used the grant correctly. Furthermore, he explained, $15,000 is merely scratching the surface, and it’s not enough to change the systemic issues that lie deep within the heart of Boston youth soccer.

So, what are those issues?

The most obvious obstacle to developing youth soccer in an urban environment is field space.

Auguste believes that communication is the key to maximizing field usage. He explained that, contrary to popular belief, there is enough space in areas like East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester to play. The issue is scheduling, especially between different sports. Auguste, who played American football as a kid, believes soccer is still not given the funds and time it deserves: “Football numbers are declining, soccer’s are going up, but the funding still acts like football is the dominant sport. They get five coaches where soccer gets one,” he said.

Rudzinski agrees that field space, while an issue, is often simply a facade for a more complicated underlying issue. He explained, as Auguste had touched on, the single biggest issues are communication and organization. “There’s no reason we couldn't have three times more kids playing, and they wouldn't have to set foot into a car,” he said.

A dysfunctional club system is a large part of the issues Boston faces.

“We probably have the most complicated club system of any state in America,” said head coach of Emerson College’s women's soccer team David Suvak. In Boston, Suvak explained, you have multiple different leagues, rather than one central league. Boston based leagues like BAYS, MAPLE and Middlesex have attempted to consolidate, but there’s no reason those couldn’t merge, aside from coordination. A parent looking at the club system in Boston has no idea where to start, no idea what the different levels are. “The club system is an absolute disastrous mess, anybody can enter, there’s no oversight. Too many games, too much travel,” Rudzinski said.

With the plethora of issues faced, everything can be traced back to centralization and communication. Thus, Caroline Foscato has a plan to fix this.

Foscato, who in 2008 co-founded a youth league in the South End, founded the Boston Soccer Summit last year as a way to open a dialogue between the various soccer programs in Boston. For the first few meetings Foscato said the focus was understanding what the various issues were, collecting data, and making sure everyone was on the same page. However, she believes now they understand exactly what the issues are. “Information is great, but now is the time for action,” she said.

People like Mulliner, Rudzinski, Auguste, and Suvak are present at these meetings and are hoping this is the beginning of a new era of Boston youth soccer. Yet, there’s reason for concern.

Dean Conway has been coaching in Boston for over 30 years. He’s seen it all. In fact, in the mid-1990s Conway says Massachusetts youth soccer was the apple of everyone’s eye. “People wouldn’t believe how well we were doing,” he said. At that point, MYSA had a full-time staff member in charge of the city of Boston. Things changed. That staff member left the position, no one was replaced, and the position was dissolved due to budget cuts.

Now, 20 years later, Boston is still fighting the same problems Conway had back then. “I think Caroline is an amazing person and what she’s trying to do with these summits is amazing, but ...” his voice trailed off as he turned to look out the window of the Jamaica Plains coffee shop. He knew the end to this sentence could be misconstrued. He let out a somber sigh, and peering down at the table he said, “The long and the short of it is: everyone smiles and shakes hands and afterward nothing gets done.” He was worried about saying that, but his love for the game is more important than being politically correct.

On November 20, 2016, the Boston Soccer Summit met for the fifth time. In those five meetings, they’ve had 30 different organizations represented by 50 different people. Foscato was well aware of Conway’s criticisms, and believes this time will be different: “I’ve spoken with Dean about what has failed in the past and I’m confident we can avoid those pitfalls,” she said. She explained that this meeting was different than the past ones, that they are on the verge of making tangible progress.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that there’s no one whose job it is to facilitate communication between the leagues and organizations. Foscato said that they are nearing the final stages in setting up such a position. “This is it,” she said, “now the real work begins.”

The 167,402 registered youth soccer players in Massachusetts certainly hope so.

(Aiden Teplitzky Dobens is a free-lance journalist currently residing in Boston, Massachusetts. Born in New York City to a Chilean mother and American father, Aiden was playing with a soccer ball as soon as he could walk and has followed the sport obsessively since the age of 7. He volunteers with Soccer Without Borders and South End Soccer in Boston, also doing video and photography work for local youth soccer programs. Although soccer is his passion, Aiden has written for a variety of sites, from music journalism to immigration rights. If you'd like to contact him for photo, video, or written work, please email: aidentdobens@gmail.com.)

14 comments about "Boston seeks unity to grapple with big-city youth soccer challenges".
  1. Fly Bynyte, December 13, 2016 at 3:31 p.m.

    I am not from Boston, but a far away major metro area, but reading this article I can see the same story playing out. Large local clubs have the space they need to perpetuate their pay-to-play model. Making space upstart clubs - is NOT what they want - that makes it easy for 'new entrants'. Why don't legacy pay-to-play clubs like 'new entrants'? New clubs force prices down and compete for talent. When you don't have talent you don't win. When you don't win - parents walk with their $. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, USSF sitting on $70M in bank and pay-to-play strangle hold on major metro areas flourishes.

  2. Thomas Sullivan, December 13, 2016 at 4:27 p.m.

    Good start with the article. Some things concern me that are implicit in the article.

    1. Beware of centralization - it will kill all the fun for the kids.
    2. Remind yourselves that the purpose of youth soccer in the Greater Boston area is to enable kids to have fun with their friends and learn to play the game. It isn't to make a soccer factory.
    3. Don't let the Brits gain control. There are better models than the Brits and they still think the sun doesn't set on their soccer empire - except it never was their empire. The world of soccer passed them by a half century ago and, like coal mining jobs, it aint coming back.

  3. K Hakim, December 13, 2016 at 4:48 p.m.

    US Soccer Foundation is based in Washington DC, the nation's capital. They give nothing to develop soccer in that city. So why would anyone care about Boston or any other city? Money in this country goes to the selfish and greedy. Nobody cares about the kids and the next generation. Hypocrisy rules.

  4. James Madison, December 13, 2016 at 6:06 p.m.

    Interesting article, but it doesn't share a clue to the problem. So there are different clubs, so what? So there is competition for field space. Isn't there a school system or park department to referee the allocation? So there aren't paid coaches. In this day and age, after all the years of youth, high school, college and rec soccer, aren't there enough parents who are willing to volunteer and, with the aid of a US Soccer or NSCAA course, qualified? Can't Mr. Milliner sanction leagues and tournament? Isn't there any entrepeneurial individual who has been involved in youth soccer elsewhere, either Club or AY or both, and has now migrated to Boston?

  5. Bill Wilson, December 14, 2016 at 10:27 a.m.

    There are thousands and thousands of sports, charity, civic organizations, etc. all over the country that are basically in the same boat as Boston youth soccer. There are clearly a lot of people who feel free to get their kids involved in youth soccer there, but like most people and places, they expect someone else to do the dirty work to make it happen seemlessly and to pay for it too. And complain loudly if their kid is disrespected in some way too. Don't even ask for taxes to be raised to pay for things people seem to feel free to demand. Especially if some faceless Government bureaucrats or remote organization like US Soccer can be blamed for and expected to pay to solve the "issue". Or better yet blame the root of all evil in this country, "Pay for Play". So who is really selfish and greedy here. A lot of people in Boston need to look in the mirror.

  6. replied, December 15, 2016 at 9:13 a.m.

    I think your comment misses the point of the "complaint" in the article (or perhaps the article wasn't clear enough). I assume you are referring to me (interviewed in the article). Neither I nor anyone else is complaining about having to volunteer. The issue is that relying on volunteers is no way to build a truly developmentally-oriented system that can develop skilled players efficiently. The "system" in this country is woefully lagging; Boston is merely one example of that (perhaps an extreme one).

  7. Bill Wilson replied, December 15, 2016 at 10:13 a.m.

    No I clearly understood what you are saying. I truly applaud your willingness to volunteer to take on these mostly thankless responsibilities. My snark was directed at all of the free-riders everywhere who expect to drop their kid off at a practice and have somebody else train, or more likely entertain, them for a few hours. Preferably if they don't have to pay anything to support the "volunteers" and if it is at a facility right down the street (but not too close because then the traffic and noise would be unacceptable). They are also the first ones to scream about taxes or increased training fees. There is the root of your evil. That being said, there are no billionaires willing to write checks to fix this local issue you describe. If US Soccer started spending their supposed war chest to address these local problems all over the country, the money would disappear down a sinkhole so fast we would wonder where it all went and nothing would change. Guess where it would go...into the pockets of the evil pay-for-play exploiters who control the system now. That is the way the world works, always has and always will. Youth soccer, in Boston and everywhere else, is designed to satisfy the needs of the majority (a nice place for kids to have social interaction and get some physical activity). Stop tilting at windmills and leave it that way. It is actually doing a pretty good job accomplishing that mission, and of course, those with money will have a better experience for their kids than those who don't. If the issue is development, however, then you hit on the real answer early in the article. Support the NE Revolution and the growth of their Academy system. This is where the development you seek will happen because the economic incentives are aligned and they are the only billionaires willing to write the checks.

  8. R2 Dad, December 14, 2016 at 11:51 a.m.

    In my big town Park & Rec runs the show because we don't have enough fields and that city-run office schedules them. We have one large league that is run by a volunteer board, with a couple paid administrators that do the day-to-day. There are established clubs but it's open with lots of smaller clubs trying to make a living. My complaint is that if clubs were able to offer equity to new/youth/promising coaches there wouldn't be this continual churn with clubs calving off, growing or dying, merging--that's all for the grownup's benefit. All I know is every year or two my kid's team blows up and there is no continuity or stability. Parents pay a lot of money for travel teams, but coaches are often not able to travel with their teams every weekend to every match so weekday lessons don't get reinforced at the weekend. I'd rather we kill travel teams and only play against local teams our age and those a year younger or older, so our coaches can always make those weekend games. I don't need to spend my whole weekend day driving up to 90 miles to a match, just to have the opponent forfeit because some of their players were playing up/at another match/tournament that same day.

  9. MA Soccer, December 15, 2016 at 12:55 p.m.

    Boston is a microcosm of the national problem. MYSA (the US Soccer representative in Mass) shows very little if any leadership to fix problems especially inner city and add very little value in general. Mr. Mulliner's reaction of throwing his hands in the air is typical. It is his job to fix it! As stated Mr Mulliner is 50 minutes from Boston in Lancaster MA not because it is central (it is not) . He is there because MYSA got into the field business about 10 years ago developing and now managing Progin Park in Lancaster. They should not be in this business. (btw before Mr Mulliners time). MYSA has one of if not the highest fees of state organizations and it is going up next year, even though registration is declining. Each player and coach pays $3 to under write that field compex and a fraction of the 160,000 + ever play there. Furthermore MYSA has very little oversight of the leagues. I.E BAYS which is the town team league which organizes games in metro Boston is a for profit organization with an owner that also sells town soccer club management software. Obvious conflict of interest. The old boy network is alive and well and the city players of Massachusetts are the forgotten masses.

    MYSA sell Progin Park use it to start a foundation for inner cities. Keep the $3 fee to fund annually (most towns are ok with the $3) Clean up the leagues that manage town programs like BAYS and start doing something meaningful.

  10. Kent James, December 15, 2016 at 1:04 p.m.

    The author cites a problem that plagues youth soccer in this country; fragmentation and lack of coordination. Clubs are unwilling to give up anything without a guarantee they will always get more than they give (in the short term). This problem is not unique to Boston. This is where one would hope the USSF (or the state organization) might provide some leadership (in getting small clubs to coordinate or combine).
    On the other hand, Boston might be a great place for the USSF to invest in futsal as an urban soccer model. Work with local organizations, see where the kids are, and build an outdoor futsal court, see if that can get the kids to get into the game. If that works, do it again.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, December 15, 2016 at 9:09 p.m.

    The beauty of futsal is that you don't need to build special purpose futsal courts. Futsal can be played on just about any type of court and surface. Even parking lots.

  12. Bob Ashpole, December 15, 2016 at 9:04 p.m.

    Consolidation is not always the best approach. Different circumstances exist at the top and bottom of the pyramid. High population programs should be neighborhood based. Low population programs should be consolidated when the numbers are too few to operate on a neighborhood basis. At some ages play can be coed so consolidation can be along those lines. Sometimes participation level varies by age and consolidation can be consolidating age groups or by geographic consolidation. "One size" solutions don't have to fit all. Efficiency can be gained by consolidation of technical support and administration. Examples of gaining efficiencies of scale would be a consolidated administrative board and officials, director of coaching, coaching education and match officials for neighborhood leagues.

  13. MA Soccer, December 16, 2016 at 7:07 a.m.

    As usual good comments MYSA and USSF need to do something, anything different. As someone who has been involved in all levels of MA soccer for many years, I have no idea what is MYSAs mission and how do they set and manage their priorities. They have tied up capital and resources in a facility in Lancaster very few town players use. Majority of their recent programs are revenue based in suburban communities. From their actions Inner city programs are low priorities. There is no vision, it is run in short term not like a national program trying to develop the sport. They should be helping not walking away shaking their head.

  14. aaron dutch, December 17, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    The core of the issue is organized soccer in the US. has failed, its a product for middle-class and above kids who only play during practice or matches which is only 1/4 of the time needed and is structured without any real methodology that could ever develop players. we should stop putting any kids in it until they are good enough in futsal/school-playground/beach/trick/street soccer like this... https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/dec/14/balllon-sur-bitume-street-football-france?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Email

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