I witnessed the blooming of soccer in this country during my stay in the USA 30 years ago (1978-1987). The emergence of women’s soccer fueled by Title IX was especially phenomenal. Although
the old NASL folded while I was here, the youth development was very promising. I watched the development of soccer in this country across the Atlantic for the next 30 years. The last 12 months I have
been here, I have been researching, reading and witnessing the development of soccer in the USA. Unfortunately, what I see today in terms of development is behind what I would have expected to see
after 30 years. As someone who spent 30 years in European football at different levels, I will try to bring a fresh and different perspective to the missing fifth pillar
, namely technical development. While doing this I will
try not to forget the realities of this country. Today I will discuss the obstacles en route to the development of the fifth pillar.
The first obstacle is the “pay to play” system
. Youth development in
soccer is big business in this country. I have to point out that “pay to play” model is not only confined to soccer. There are a lot opportunities and lots of people benefit from those
opportunities. Through the “pay to play” model, both the customers and the vendors are happy and satisfied. In the case of the “play to play” model, the customers are the
parents and not the kids who play in the system. The vendors -- the clubs -- try to satisfy the needs and wishes of the parents. Soccer parents are the second most affluent category of parents in team
sports; only lacrosse parents surpass the soccer parents
. It is evident that partly due
“to pay to play” model, the participation level of 6-12 year old kids is dropping in all team sports including soccer. The “pay to play” model discriminates against the
inner-city kids and the kids of less affluent families, namely Latinos and the African-Americans. There are some scholarships available and various efforts by cities like the “Urban Soccer Leadership Academy
” in San Antonio try to compensate for these shortcomings. These efforts cannot change the hindrance of development by the
“pay to play” model unless you find smart ways of circumventing it. Attacking the “pay to play” model and trying to change it radically and completely would be like Don Quixote
attacking the windmills.
One can say that in Europe there are “pay to play” systems of youth development. True, but those are professional clubs using their trademark value to
generate extra revenue for their developmental academies. Those “pay to play” football schools extremely rarely develop players who could be utilized by the academies and eventually turn
pro. These football schools do not only exist in the home country but in many countries abroad, including the USA. Their real function is not to find talents in those countries for the home club, but
to create cash flow.
Another serious problem of the “pay to play” model is the concept of traveling teams for tournaments. This is another way of raising money for the
“vendor” club. Sometimes kids play three games in one day. There is very little or no gain for the players in terms of development in those tournaments.
The second obstacle to
the development of the fifth pillar is the structural body of youth soccer. There are five different entities under US Soccer who are organizing youth soccer: namely USYSA, US Club Soccer, AYSO, SAY
and USSSA. Some of them are just recreational and some of them are both recreational and competitive. So leagues choose to participate in the organization whichever entity provides better
service for less. The development of players is not the primary driving force in choosing the organizer for the leagues. For the land of the free, this might make sense, but it creates entropy
in terms of development. Forget about the standards of development, each league has its own set of laws for U-12 leagues. If you are a youth referee, you will have to check the local rules for
each game you have to officiate in the same state, even in the same city.
In Europe, there are regional associations similar to state associations in the USA. Each regional association
organizes all kinds of soccer: youth -- usually there is no distinction between recreational and competitive soccer -- and amateur adult soccer for both genders. Through the regional
associations, the national governing body for soccer can implement whatever developmental plan they have. For example, the standards for youth development and the laws of the game are the same for
Duisburg and in Leipzig. Please do not tell me in defense that the USA is a democracy and has a capitalist system. Nearly all of the European countries have a democratic system with a free economy.
The third obstacle is also structural. When FIFA granted the 1994 World Cup to USA, they had one prerequisite: USA must have a professional league. That is how MLS was born, with a
completely top-down approach. In Europe, throughout the history the teams moved from the amateur status to professional status through promotion and relegation. Today, a team in the lowest amateur
division has the chance to become a professional team through success on the field if they chose to do so. There are very stringent rules (national and UEFA club licensing systems) to become a
professional club in the first-tier European countries. So the system is completely bottom-up. Unfortunately, the USA did not have the luxury of developing a bottom-up system in 1994, so we had to
start with a top-down model.
The majority of the teams in Europe, whether amateur or professional, have either an academy or a youth development system. These academies or youth
development programs are geared to develop players for their A team. For the directors of the academies or youth development programs, the primary objective is to develop players so that the A team
can utilize them or they can sell the player to another club to bring in revenue for the club. Winning a game or being the champion in the age group is not their primary goal. That is, they do not
train and play to win but to develop.
Today under U.S. Soccer, there is a separate entity for youth and adult soccer. This separation does not help the holistic approach to soccer for the
integration of youth and adult systems. For example, where I live there is a premier adult amateur league and none of the clubs in the league have any official affiliation with any youth club in the
region. There are youth clubs and adult clubs with no official affiliation between them whatsoever. Also, they compete in leagues under different entities.
Until the formation of
the Developmental Academy a few years ago, not all of the MLS clubs had an academy. Today most of the DA teams that are not affiliated to professional clubs do not have an adult team where the players
can look up to play. With FIFA’s training compensation and solidarity payments being not applicable in the USA , the coaches of these non-MLS DA clubs has no option but to focus on winning games
or championships rather than developing players. Let us not forget that most of those clubs are also “pay to play” clubs. In those clubs, the customer is the boss. The parents who
pay want their kids to win. Development is not their primary agenda. Even if they focus on development, where will those players play? After a non-MLS DA player is over the age of 18, either he/she
goes to college to play college soccer or becomes a pro for another club. There are only 62 men’s and 10 women’s professional teams for over 4 million kids who play recreational or
competitive soccer. We need competitive youth clubs who spend all their energy in developing players and not winning games if we really want a sound fifth pillar. We need to install the systems
to achieve this.
In any system, there are always obstacles to success, whether they are social, economic, political or whatever. You need to find a way to navigate your path to success
around those obstacles without “poking the bee hive” although you should take the risk of getting a few stings if not fatal. (“Poking a bee hive” is a Turkish saying meaning to
create a disturbance when everything is calm and serene.) Expect some serious resistance to the changes as you go around the obstacles but do not expect different results without reevaluating
and redefining the same system that did not bring U.S. soccer to the level it deserves. Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA.
He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.