Soccer revolution begins at the bottom -- take control back from the soccer industrial complex

After having had a car for 40 years, I have stopped driving, or rather stopped depending on a car. It's actually been very liberating.

During the week, I can get to most meetings by bus or, in a pinch, by Lyft or Uber. On the weekend, I can drive my car, which my wife uses during the week.

Otherwise, I get around the old-fashioned way, on foot. And see things I didn't see before.

On the way for my afternoon coffee a few weeks ago, I started noticing boys playing basketball at the playground next to their elementary school. Usually it was a group of six or eight and they seemed to spend more time dribbling the ball around than shooting. If I came earlier in the day, some kids would be playing basketball and others would be playing kickball on the baseball lines.

What quickly dawned on me: no one was playing soccer. I bet half these kids had passed through local soccer leagues but I didn't find any of them playing in PE, at recess or after school.

On Saturdays in the fall, I'll pass the baseball field next to another elementary school in town. The field is divided into six or eight sections for small-sided soccer games. Or what is supposed to be soccer.

It's usually a small group of kids chasing a ball with three or four adults hovering over them. It reminds me of playing musical chairs at a birthday party as a kid with parents standing over us to maneuver us into the available chairs.

Lots of kids play organized soccer, but far too few of them play anything resembling soccer and very few of them ever play soccer. On their own.

It's that backdrop that we must recognize as the starting base for any discussion of what's wrong with soccer. In the aftermath of the USA's exit from the World Cup, everyone is recriminating, seeking answers about what is wrong with the sport.

The reality is that the soccer many kids grow up playing in this country has nothing to do with the soccer played in most other countries. Kids don't play on their own or with friends, let alone play in the streets, and few parents know enough about the game to work with them.

To be sure, the latter is starting to change. Through the years, many national team players were influenced growing up by immigrant fathers who had a passion for the game. Now you have players who have two parents who grew up with the game. In the case of Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent, both their parents played college soccer, and you see their natural understanding of the game.

There are many reasons for the high cost of soccer -- fields, referees, uniforms, travel, paid coaches, administrative fees -- and so-called "pay to play," but so many of the problems of youth soccer stem from the fact that too few parents understand the game enough to step in and coach. They depend on paid coaches and don't question whether teams really need to travel or spend the money they are spending on uniforms.

My son grew up playing baseball -- and he is still playing in college -- and he never had a paid coach. I knew nothing about baseball other than to play catch with my son and throw batting practice to him, but I trusted his coaches, all parents who had played the game. He started playing travel ball when he was 11 but until he was 17 never traveled farther than an hour away.

There are many critical issues that need to be addressed at the elite youth level, in MLS and in the national team program to create more accessibility and require greater accountability.

But the pool of players that American soccer starts out with will remain far fewer than the registration numbers suggest if you don't take back control of the game from the soccer industrial complex and begin at the bottom:

-- You can't force your kids to play soccer at recess or after school or turn every basketball court into a futsal court, but make sure they have access to soccer balls and work with the school to have small soccer goals. (In this day and age, there's no reason for PE teachers not to make soccer an important part of their program.)

-- Step in and take charge of the organized soccer your kids are playing, beginning with their first league or club experiences.

-- Take your kids and friends out and play soccer. You don't need to rent a field or pay a coach.

-- Join the board of your local league or club and learn where the money is going. If the expenditures don't make sense, don't approve them. Learn what the field issues are in your community and lobby for soccer to get better access.

-- As your kids move up the soccer ladder, stay involved and use your best judgment. There will come times paid coaches and travel made sense, but don't accept them blindly.

14 comments about "Soccer revolution begins at the bottom -- take control back from the soccer industrial complex".
  1. R2 Dad, October 12, 2017 at 1:44 a.m.

    Good points, but it's actually worse than you're making it. The San Francisco School District doesn't allow players to play baseball/basketball/football/soccer during recess (like the old days). No winners or losers are allowed. They claim this is not the case but all the principals are in lockstep. When they do play basketball or soccer, there are 40 kids on the court/field, just so they can claim they are allowing our kids to "play". Meanwhile, obesity and type 2 diabetes are rampant among these students. It's so sad, but the grownups don't care that much.

  2. ernesto kirchgassler, October 12, 2017 at 1:49 a.m.

    why not ? make every basketball and tennis court into multiuse courts,tennis nets can be rolled out of the way for court soccer and install anti-vandal aluminum futsal goals on all basketball courts

  3. Scott Johnson, October 12, 2017 at 1:53 a.m.

    Walk through my neighborhood, you'll feel better.

  4. M S, October 12, 2017 at 9:59 a.m.

    Change starts at the top and this is not debatable.
    The reason kids in countries like Brazil play in the streets in large part is because they know that if they are amongst thr best they will get scouted in invited into their local club annd then Academy and all depending on their output wipl keep climbing the ladder no money needed. We are far from that. U12s-U14s have little chance in playing in any DA much less get scouted for it if they cant afford costs. Thats a huge chunk of talent that gors denied. If this is the sense what motivates kids to pick up a soccer ball and just play? If the sense is that soccer is for the "rich kids" in this country how can we expect to see kids plat in the streets?
    Our guys up top have created this sense of entitlement through not even enforcing common Fifa tules designef to get the poor and best ti the top.
    How about Soccer America stop sugar coating what we all can easily see? Time for some real journalism.

  5. Ben Myers, October 12, 2017 at 10:54 a.m.

    I thought that the golden age of soccer in the US had begun with our hosting of the World Cup in 1994.  Wow!  Was I ever wrong.

    I have been doing for years at the grass roots level what Paul Kennedy advocates, first with my kids, now in their 30's, later with other young soccer players.  The results have been positive, with numerous boys and girls going on to play college soccer mostly at higher echelon Division 3 schools.  With its penchant to scout only NCAA Division 1 teams, MLS does itself a major disservice.  There are pro caliber NCAA Division 2 and 3 players that deserve consideration, and they are largely ignored.

    But the most serious issue remains that USSF has failed miserably in rationalizing all the various factions that are involved in soccer in these United States.  "Failed miserably" may be an understatement.  "Hardly tried" is more like it.

    Adults in this country always want to "organize" sports these days.  Years ago, when I had some influence in soccer in my town, a couple of us "organized" pick-up soccer on summer evenings.  Any kid who lived in town could come and play, no matter what the age.  If we had enough kids, they would play on several soccer fields.  Nobody coached.  The kids played, the younger learning from the examples of older ones playing.  They had fun.  They learned from one another.  Many became decent players, playing at higher levels.  The fun they had doing pickup translated into a passion for the game.  Now, the soccer movers and shakers in my town seem not to be motivated to do anything beyond the organized league play.  Pity. 

  6. Bob Ashpole, October 12, 2017 at 11:42 a.m.

    I think there is some merit in the articles views, but in my limited experience as a soccer parent there was a marked difference between volunteer coaches for girls teams and for boys teams. In the 25-30 years ago I was a rarity--I had played competitively at the college level. The club appointed a parent coach without any relevant experience, althletic skills, or teaching skills. A parent coach who was focused on himself and winning matches, who didn't want any involvement by someone who actually knew something about leadership, soccer and training. 

    In addition to nightmare parent coaches, I saw many parents who were making a positive impact, former college athletes (of any sport), non-commissioned military officers, and elementary school teachers. Invaribly these volunteer organizations would assign volunteers by what the volunteer wanted to do rather than what the volunteer was qualified to do.

    Someone who doesn't know the fundamentals cannot teach kids the fundamentals. IMO this is why so many youth coaches at the fundamental stage focus on team tactics and winning matches instead of teaching fundamentals. They cannot teach what they don't know.

    Over the years I have seen USSF try different strategies to solve the problem of unskilled volunteer parent coaches. First they dropped the section on team tactics for the USSF Coaching Manual, but, instead of focusing on the fundamentals in the manual, bad coaches would make up their own team tactics for winning youth matches. Then the focus was on using SSGs and "the game as being the teacher," but this is simply creating structured training without any coaching feedback.

    What we need is for parents who are or have been athletes, trainers, educators, and leaders to step up and get involved. We need the other parents to find those that have the necessary expertise, enable them to contribute, and support them as they are able. Most important, we need to bring physical education, recess, and sports back to our community schools. I see the rise of the pay-to-play private sports clubs and their influence on youth as a direct result of cutting athletics and physical education from school programs.        

  7. frank schoon replied, October 12, 2017 at 1:02 p.m.

    Bob, read this dutch article. You can Google translate it and do it in two parts for it is a little long. The dutch journalist has a 9 year old son and read he finds what we so often complaints about

  8. frank schoon replied, October 12, 2017 at 1:03 p.m.

    Here you Bob
     Laat de kleintjes lekker dribbelen | Nederlands voetbal |

  9. frank schoon replied, October 12, 2017 at 1:05 p.m.

    See if this works, Bob

  10. K Michael, October 12, 2017 at 11:46 a.m.

    I hear ya Paul, but my hood' is a bit different, There are always kids in my neigborhood banging the ball around, I'd say every other home with kids have soccer goals in the yard.  The local elementary school has not one, but two small-sided fields where the kids play at recess (my kids went there and my youngest played recess soccer most days - I know because his Mom always complained about his dirty clothes and holes in the knees!)  Then again, we have a local DA, two very competitive (top 20) college programs nearby, and a pro team, all well-supported, so we are  a mini soccer oasis here in the midwest, I guess.

  11. Tyler Wells, October 12, 2017 at 12:08 p.m.

    The article is sensible if a bit obvious.  The click-bait title is unfortunate.  There is no "soccer-industrial complex" in the USA.  There are many competing leagues and programs.  In my own little town in the Midwest 350K population there are at least 4 totally separate soccer leagues, including a league for the latin kids.  The problem is that these leagues never interact but each is it's own little world.   The result is thousands of kids playing casual rec-league boot and run soccer and, at least at U10, few getting any kind of decent soccer training.  
    I support what US soccer has been doing at the youth levels and would like to see more of it, not less.  On pay to play someone is always paying.  It may be the club or it may be the parents.  In my town, there is no professional team and, therefore, having the MLS have academies isn't going to be any help.  

  12. Andrew Brown, October 12, 2017 at 12:09 p.m.

    Walk through any neighborhood in LA, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Orange County, SD, Phoenix, Vegas and you'll see plenty of kids, teens, adults playing pickup games. That's not even taking into account the numerous pickup games I can choose from and pay $5-$10 a night, any given night of the week. One of my favorites in the LA area is at a tiny indoor place Jonathan Bornstein's family runs that has 2 tiny fields with nets around them and hs kids come play 4v4 all night long. The amount of talent and the skills on the ball is astounding compared to what I grew up with 30 years ago. 

    At my kids school, the recess bell goes off, kids run out of their classroom kick a ball onto the field and you have a game of 40 elementary kids on a field with few boundaries. My son (7) comes home and lets me know he pulled moves on the best player or stopped the fastest kid from scoring. Of course it's not too foreign to me - we did the same thing growing up near Rochester, NY. And the notoriety that HS soccer had in that region pushed kids to play well beyond youth soccer.

    If you want to get upset with any one organization, have it out with the AYSO's and US Youth Soccer who micromanage the $h!t out of our kids. AYSO makes us pay for each team to have personalized jersies, a stupid freaking team sign and all but mandate that you must buy the team trophies and the coach a present at the end of the season. The cost for an "all volunteer" organization is stupid especially since they won't allow any payment of referees so you get parents who may not even like soccer blowing the whistle in games. I'd rather have my son join the latino leagues where you pay $5 for each practice or game and you get much higher probability of moving on to an elite program. 

  13. Ray Lindenberg , October 12, 2017 at 3:56 p.m.

    To the comment that: "I would rather back into the world cup and go 3 and out in Group play than not have world cup soccer for 8 years" --  nobody wants to be on the outs when it comes to the signature moment of the sport they are passionate about. But the real question is: A) would a false sense of standing and true, collective ability serve us well? In other words, if we're generally going on a wrong track, should we be satisfied with just being on that track? And B) what is the right catalyst to getting on the right track -- hanging in here and limping along with a bad product, or getting a kick in the pants and feeling the reality check that gets us to realize that we gotta get cranking … get on a much more superior track … and quick?

    I suggest that we have been going nowhere slowly, with the national game plan we got. Christian Pulisic should've been the phenom du jour, and set the standard to build even greater talents, in 1994, not 2017. By now, with all the resources, raw talent and other advantages we have as a resourceful sporting and media-rich nation, we should be a perennial powerhouse at each World Cup, instead of putzing around with a flimsy qualification wish, on a dot on the Caribbean map that would have had more spectators attend a Soca festival than at national Soccer match.

    The T&T experience wasn't a fiasco as much as it was a blatant expose and confirmation that there is something rotten in Denmark. We need a major attitude change in our approach, expectations and especially our standards.

    We need to be an Americanized version of Brazil or Germany, in that regard -- and there's no reason why we can't be (even with the distractions of all the other sports in our sandbox … we did it with hockey, didn’t we?), but we first determine that we want to be super. We gotta be gazelles, not turtles, on the fast-track road to soccer supremacy. What the quick-sands of T&T underscored for us is that we got a heckuva lot farther way to go than we've been willing to admit.

    We need to create a whole new fresh, dynamic, breathtaking brand of true, free-flowing, imaginative, dynamic, American Jogo Bonito … and put an end to relying on this staccato, mish-mosh that we see on ESPN, GOL TV, etc. as being our North Star.

    But we can't do it if we're complacent and accept a hand-me-down product. It's not what happened at T&T that's our bugaboo ... it's what we'll turn into if we don't wake up and take a radical new path now that we got our marching orders, that really matters at this stage. We need to be more audacious and dare ourselves to be great in our soccer-ing … no more chop-chop kickballing … no settling … no settling!

  14. aaron dutch, October 13, 2017 at 10:04 a.m.

    Lets all be honest, between 1986-2002 we had our "yea team" growth phase of US Soccer. but since then the last 15 years we have been spinning our collective wheels. Being realistic to our quality not just in CONCACAF but in the Americas & overall in the world. 

    Don't forget Central America football has NOT been spinning its wheels they have been working hard to get modern FA's off the ground.

    If you look at the metrics (size of the region, number of 1/2/3rd division clubs, fields, camps, coaching development, number of academies, partnerships with other FA's/Leagues/Clubs around the world, pipeline quality of players by age group, improvement of U15-U20 outcomes, etc..) the things FA boards should be focused on. Central America has become the real challange for everyone to deal with in CONCACAF while US & Mexico don't have an automatic berth. If CONCACAF ever merged with COMMEBOL there could cycles where both don't qualify. 

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