Commentary

No pain, no risk, no gain

After I wrote my article about the obstacles to the development of the fifth pillar – namely technical development, some very interesting developments in the US soccer scene surfaced out. I am using the verb “surfaced” because all of those developments, I believe are the manifestations of long overdue unattended problems in the soccer structure of our country.

First, Washington Youth Soccer Association (WYSA) wanted to affiliate with U.S. Soccer, bypassing both USYSA and US Club Soccer. Their Nov. 30 letter to Dan Flynn -- the CEO of U.S. Soccer -- is of great importance. It lists the historical structural youth development problems of this country and seeks the solution in “a 2018 launch for the U.S. Soccer instituting direct programs.” The letter refers to other National Governing Bodies around the globe that use a similar approach.

What was personally refreshing for me was the fact that a few days after the publication of my article to read the same structural problems spelled out by one of the 55 Youth Soccer Associations in this country. I was relieved that I was not hallucinating as a newcomer to the USA. The facts I have seen were obvious to at least some of the constituents of our country’s youth soccer establishment. The USYSA responded to this letter in a way that I would categorize as a “knee jerk reaction” and “accepted” their resignation -- although it was not clear that WYSA had actually resigned from USYSA.

Later on, common sense prevailed and USYSA reinstated WYSA. As an outsider, I am not so sure what kind of negotiations took place to prompt this “reinstatement. I do not know also how U.S. Soccer reacted to the letter dated Nov. 30. Actually U.S. Soccer being aware of the structural problems in youth soccer introduced the concept of Developmental Academies (DA) -- which is directly run by U.S. Soccer -- to the youth development landscape 10 years ago. It tried to circumvent some of the problems. This year, U.S. Soccer expanded the DA to embrace the girls program also.

Another recent development is the fact that U.S. Soccer announced that both NASL and USL will be provisional D2 professional leagues. The statement made by U.S. Soccer does not tell the public how both leagues can remove their provisional status.

There is no doubt there are some structural problems or obstacles on route to technical development perfection in our country. Once we reach that stage with the help of the other four pillars, we will be a real soccer powerhouse nation like Argentina, Germany, Spain and Brazil ranked always in the top 10 in the men’s FIFA rankings. We are also losing ground on the women’s side, which we have dominated so far. The problem is the same: The perfection in technical development. Title IX and the early start helped us to spearhead women’s soccer so far. Not only the results, but the statistics in the recent U-17 and U-20 World Cups were frightening. These cannot be attributed exclusively to coaching problems.

I believe the basic obstacle to the perfection in technical development is the “pay-to-play” model. Not only the “pay-to-play” model alienates and discourages the less affluent members of our society from participating in youth soccer, it also creates a pretext for not applying FIFA’s “training compensation and solidarity payment” in this country. Why should a professional club pay training compensation fee to an “amateur” club that developed that player when in essence her/his parents paid for his/her development? I understand there are “legal” issues which also prevent U.S. Soccer from applying the FIFA statue that is globally effective elsewhere.

If we go with my recent analogy of the ”bee hive,” the bee hive is the pay-to-play model. The honey in the bee hive is the elite players of this country. The pay-to-play model is a very big business in the USA. There is no legal or ethical way to ban the pay-to-play system in a free society. So we must approach the bee hive carefully -- well protected -- to extract the honey without provoking or threatening the bees in the hive. Even then we can get stung by a few bees but we will survive. If we poke to bee hive with the hope that the bees will get out of the hive peacefully and we will collect the honey easily, we might end up being stung by hundreds of bees and our fortune could be fatal.

So here are a few suggestions to get the “honey” from the bee hive without poking it:

First of all, we should realize it is U.S. Soccer’s duty to remove the obstacles that we all see.

We should work projects to attract the less affluent members of our society into our youth soccer system. These less affluent members of our society are usually Hispanics and African-Americans. Members of those groups produce some of the best soccer players in the world. U.S. Soccer has a Diversity Task Force that is doing its best to define new “diversity projects” for the underserved. U.S. Soccer can work with cities, states and philanthropic organizations to create environments in which underserved kids of our society can flourish in soccer. This means putting more financial resources to that end.

There are a number of unaffiliated “Hispanic” leagues in the southern United States. They have their own youth leagues officiated by their own unaffiliated referees. I am sure the clubs in the youth leagues are “free to play” leagues. There are two reasons for their non-affiliation: Undocumented members and financial constraints. U.S. Soccer can work with state associations to subsidize these leagues so that the system can embrace the underprivileged youth players and referees in those leagues. Although neither U.S. Soccer nor the state associations can do much for the undocumented players and referees.

The DA system is coming along with astounding results. Most recently of the 32 players invited to the USMNT camp, 10 were products of the DA’s. On the other hand, considering the inception of the DA Leagues ten years ago this number should have been more than 10. Ten years is an adequate duration for the development of elite players. Let us not forget that Germany restructured its youth development program in 2002 and won the World Cup 12 years later. In order to have the majority of the USMNT’s roster being products of the DA leagues, the boys’ DA leagues have to be further expanded.

The DA system is the most important “carrot” that U.S. Soccer offered to the Youth Development system especially for the non-professional clubs. For those clubs competing in the DA leagues is a dream that came true. So U.S. Soccer can use this carrot as a stick for those who are not following the rules. The rules of being part of the DA league do not address the “pay to play” model. U.S. Soccer can mandate in an increasing scale a mandatory percentage of scholarships to DA players eventually reaching 100 percent. Although “amateur” clubs and their customers “the parents” will not like this mandate at first, but the “carrot” of being part of the DA league is so mouthwatering that they will find alternate resources for the loss of the tuition of DA players. We might lose some Academies but those are the few bee stings we can risk in getting the honey.

Although the questionnaire asks the clubs, “Does the club offer programming into the professional pathway (U-20, U-23, PDL, USL, NASL, etc.)?” it is evident that a good number of the amateur clubs in the DA leagues do not have that connection. (It is interesting to note that NPSL was not included in the list or rather represented by the etc.) This professional pathway could eventually be made mandatory and a road map should be defined. This will make the connection between elite adult and youth leagues that the country is missing.

U.S. Soccer has contracted Double Pass -- a Belgium Company -- to assess some of their DA’s. Double Pass is assessing the German and English academies as well as other academies in Europe. The system contributed a lot to the success of German soccer. Double Pass “scans” the DA’s in USA. (Scan is the verb that Double Pass uses for the process.) After the scan, they give a feedback report to both the club and U.S. Soccer. Whether the club follows the advice given by Double Pass or not is not monitored effectively. In Europe, the scanning system is used as a screening system for subsidizing clubs by the Federation. As a result of the scan, the higher the academy’s ranking is, the higher the incentives are. U.S. Soccer must adopt a similar system if it wants the full benefits of the scans. Most of the above suggestions mean more financial contribution to the system by U.S. Soccer, but then the development of soccer is the main purpose, goal and the reason for the existence of the Federation.

Last but not the least, U.S. Soccer has a document that defines the requirements for the professional leagues. It is only 12 pages long and compared to some of its European counterparts it is at best defined to be minimal. U.S. Soccer based its recent decision on this document to classify NASL and USL as provisional tier 2 professional leagues. Hence right now, there is no third-tier professional league in the USA. The rules of men’s D2 outdoor professional league is only a page long. Other than the financial aspects, it talks about the minimal number of clubs in the league, the number of time zones the league should represent and the minimal capacity of the stadiums (5,000). That is it. Among the men’s outdoor D1 requirements, there is the following sentence:

“Each U.S.based team must demonstrate a commitment to a player development program. This requirement may be satisfied by supporting either an amateur or professional reserve team competing in an USSF-sanctioned league or by the league itself."

There is no mention of player/youth development for D2. I believe U.S. Soccer should mandate player/youth development for all professional leagues coupled with a road map. Youth development is at least as important for U.S. Soccer’s main goal and mission as the minimal capacity of the stadiums.

These are some of the ways of accessing the honey in the bee hive without risking one’s life! But you must risk a few stings. There is no gain without pain.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.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.

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5 comments about "No pain, no risk, no gain".
  1. Tyler Dennis, January 12, 2017 at 9:06 p.m.

    Ahmet,

    You missed the biggest carrot of them all... an open pyramid. Remove the incentives and barriers for clubs to fight their way to D1 and now you have investment (youth devevelopment) ingrained in the system. Your "mandate" approach won't work as effectively, because it just puts up more roadblocks. Sometimes Simple is best... just like when people teach to play "simple". :)

  2. Scott Johnson replied, January 13, 2017 at 5:48 p.m.

    Ah, but a pyramid implies an entity which can forcibly relegate a club or team, and leagues which are not the property of their constituent teams (all major pro leagues in North America are joint ventures of the member teams, not a separate entity that clubs have to earn the right to play in). And at what level would you structure a pyramid for youth clubs--on a per team basis (this club's 04 squad is at level 1, but the 03s are only at level 2), or on a club basis?

  3. Ben Myers, January 12, 2017 at 9:07 p.m.

    Spot on. There are numerous other broader issues that USSF seems to be unwilling to address. I wrote a lengthy paper laying out the issues as I saw them after the last World Cup and sent it to Gulati. (Since then, I am better prepared to lay out specifics for technical development and technical-tactical considered together.) All I got was a polite thank you from him. Very little progress in the development of elite players since.

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now, January 13, 2017 at 12:30 p.m.

    "We should work projects to attract the less affluent members of our society into our youth soccer system. These less affluent members of our society are usually Hispanics and African-Americans." Maybe the less affluent are disproportionately African-American or Hispanic but "usually" isn't accurate. There are plenty of non-affluent white folks out there too.

  5. Tyler Wells, January 17, 2017 at 5:35 a.m.

    Whenever you say "do away with pay to play" you have to follow by saying where the money will come from.
    Clubs and coaches and pitches cost money. In the US, it isn't going to come fromthe taxpayer, and I don't mind paying my kids way but I don't plan on paying yours.

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