Well-positioned to address that issue is Nick Lusson, the director of a Northern California soccer program that is cost-free to more than 1,800 children. Lusson, who previously served as director of suburban Dublin United Soccer League, is also coach and director of U.S. Soccer Development Academy club San Francisco Elite Academy. His work at NorCal Premier Soccer, as club services coordinator, includes helping lower-income clubs meet the demands of the modern American youth soccer structure.
SOCCER AMERICA: Before we address pay-to-play, tell us about Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s soccer program?
NICK LUSSON: Our soccer program is part of a non-profit organization (DSAL: Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League) dedicated to providing a variety of pro-social activities for an under-served community. This “community policing model” has the objective of developing a healthier community by proactively addressing the conditions that lead to public safety issues.
Our soccer program is just one of our many programs. We provide a free recreational soccer league for over 1,800 kids and after-school programming at two elementary schools for around 200 kids. We just launched Sheriffs Fútbol Club, a cost-free competitive youth club providing experienced and highly licensed coaching.
SA: This is in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area ...
NICK LUSSON: We serve the Ashland, Cherryland, and San Lorenzo communities, a population over 60,000. This is an unincorporated area south of Oakland that features a large percentage of Latino and African-American families, in total over 80% of the population is non-white. It suffers the county’s worst mortality rates, highest unemployment rate, highest robbery rate, lowest ratio of parks to residents (national guideline is 3 acres per 1,000 residents, we have .76), and highest incarceration rate.
SA: And an area with talented young soccer players?
NICK LUSSON: Unbelievable talent throughout the area. Most never get an opportunity, and that’s what we’re trying to change. We were seeing so many highly talented players in our recreational program that had no pathway within their community to reach higher levels of the game. That was part of the impetus for launching a competitive program.
Many of the players we are scouting and developing were not on teams or playing for local clubs because they can’t afford the fees. These are the players and families that have historically been disenfranchised from the larger club soccer system. Some of our teams have been participating in US Club Soccer tournaments since this summer, and already have demonstrated that they can compete with top teams in Northern California. We bring this up simply to point out that we are one small and previously under-served area in a huge country of 325 million people. How many other kids are being forgotten because they don’t have money or resources in their community?
SA: What are your facilities like?
NICK LUSSON: We train every night at fields we built ourselves next to a liquor store. Through the work of our amazing sheriff’s deputies, we transformed a crime-ridden vacant lot full of broken bottles, weeds, and rocks into two 5v5 street soccer fields. We have limited park space and are working to fund other field projects that will create more space for our kids to train and play locally.
SA: How is the program funded?
NICK LUSSON: The majority of DSAL's income is through government funding, a combination of ongoing county support and federal grants. A little under a quarter of our funding is through foundation and private funders. We don't charge fees to the vast majority of the people we serve, so we have almost no earned revenue.
SA: How did the program come about?
NICK LUSSON: DSAL was originally launched in 2005 by Captain Marty Neideffer and our Executive Director Hilary Bass. Both were working in the community and recognized the need for more healthy activities for the children here. The soccer side of things existed as an internal recreational league until two years ago when I came on board.
Myself and longtime colleague, Omar Cervantes, had coached and directed in the more affluent East Bay clubs since 2002 and had long discussed working on a project such as this. Knowing a lack of opportunity existed for so many kids so close to home and the disillusionment with our youth clubs at the time were really the driving forces in working to help build an alternative model.
SA: After Trinidad & Tobago beat the USA, from Taylor Twellman to The Economist blamed pay-to-play. Do you believe programs such as Alameda Sheriff’s are a solution?
NICK LUSSON: A part of a broader solution, yes. We don't believe in a single magic bullet that will turn us into Spain, Germany, or Brazil overnight, but we do believe that some solutions do exist already. I also don’t believe everything is broken in our system. Every country faces their unique challenges and we’re still a work in progress at overcoming ours. We humbly present our program as a model that addresses the pay-to-play model and connecting to historically disenfranchised communities. Our focus is on solving for our community as best we can today with the hope that this same solution can be replicated elsewhere.
SA: Some costs of youth soccer seem to be a symptom of our society. Such as clubs having to pay for field space, thus having to charge parents more. How big of a problem are field costs?
NICK LUSSON: It depends, there’s a broad range out there. In working with various clubs in our state, we see some spots that have free fields (San Francisco as an example). Then there are certain communities where the field costs are nominal if anything. And then you have places where field costs are very high.
There are areas where, for example, a club with 1,500 players pays more than $100,000 a year to use the fields. That means the parents have to pay extra to use the facilities their taxes already pay for.
Some Park and Rec Departments have started to look at club sports as an income generator to help cover costs. Which is understandable up to a certain point, and then you have to question the impact it has. Although to be fair, our youth clubs aren’t always the easiest user groups for their departments to deal with, so it all cuts both ways.
SA: It seems to me that travel costs would be the easiest to cut ...
NICK LUSSON: Oh yeah. That’s a huge hidden cost. I think a lot of parents don’t realize how much they’re getting themselves on the hook for. In club soccer, we don’t advertise how much it’s going to cost you to travel to all these tournaments. If clubs told them that, they’d scare people off.
SA: Uniforms can be very expensive.
NICK LUSSON: It can be a silly arms race. Clubs “have” to buy the really nice uniforms because you have to keep up with the Joneses who have really nice ones, so then you have to get the customized nice ones.
I didn’t have a proper jersey and soccer uniform until I was in high school, and that was a uniform that was three or four years old and passed on. I still don’t understand why we don’t have kids play in T-shirts at the youth level.
SA: League Registration fees?
NICK LUSSON: I would say in Northern California it’s not a big cost because we have the competition between Cal North and NorCal that keeps that in check. I’ve heard in other states that’s another cost that’s been creeping higher and higher every year, especially in states where you have a monopoly, just a single state organization, so you have no alternative and you have to pay what they charge you. Tournament costs are definitely where you’re seeing the much more significant spike in costs, both in registration fees and travel costs.
SA: One of the major costs is compensating the coaches, right?
NICK LUSSON: That’s a sizable cost. You do have people who are very qualified who work hard and are excellent educators. The A-license is a pretty stringent and expensive process to go through. You have people with advanced degrees in childhood development, kinesiology, sport psychology -- these are very experienced, well qualified people who I think should be compensated for their work.
Teachers should be paid more. Coaches should be paid more. I think people who work with children are an asset to society.
The downside with paid coaching is there’s also a lot of total B.S. in the paid coaching market. Inflated qualifications and backgrounds. Oftentimes clubs who are in need of coaches take underqualified people to make sure they don’t lose a team and/or revenue stream. I’ve been guilty of making that mistake in my own career as a club director.
And we don’t have an apprentice mentality or approach anymore. I feel like it used to be that way when I started coaching. I spent years coaching for free and I felt that was my apprenticeship, learning to coach, and it was an investment in a future career.
But now it feels like a 22-year-old straight out of college is expecting to get full-time pay as a youth soccer coach right out of the gate.
SA: Is the volunteer-coach model not sufficient nowadays? Many lower-income clubs especially depend on volunteer coaches.
NICK LUSSON: I’m going to speak in a big generality on this one, as there are countless exceptions to this. I’ve seen some amazing volunteer parent coaches working in under-resourced clubs that blow the doors off some A-licensed guys out there.
But if you average it all out, then I believe they certainly are at a disadvantage, especially if they’re not in an environment that provides them with the proper training, guidance, and support. In theory, a paid coach should have the time to be properly planning sessions, following a player development curriculum, providing feedback to players, working with the rest of the coaching staff, and pursuing their own self-development and continued education. A paid coaching model provides the time to maximize the environment for the development of the kids.
However, we have to find solutions that address our current reality. The majority of youth soccer players in our country are being coached by volunteer parents. I don’t agree with being dismissive of those people and their important contributions to our sport. Some of the professional European clubs that we all like to admire also use volunteer coaches. I think the solution lies in providing them with more tools and supports in order to be more effective in their roles.
SA: For low-budget clubs, for volunteer coaches who don’t have the time or finances to take high level courses, what’s your advice?
NICK LUSSON: The U.S. Soccer Federation’s F-license is a good start. It’s a cost-effective online course that lays out some quality basics. After that, I think it’s important to be creative on all levels of this topic. For coaches, I always suggest a combination of free online articles and resources like YouTube, going and watching other coaches run sessions, and then just buying in to a sense of a coaching community. Get that coffeehouse-philosopher dynamic going where they carve out some time to have a beer with a colleague and debate about coaching.
For a club, I think you can do a lot internally that costs you nothing. Just a system of regularly having coaches observe and reflect on one another’s coaching can benefit all parties. A coaching director’s job should be to provide regular clinics and workshops for their coaches both on and off the field. You can bring in outside specialists who will often volunteer their time.
On the larger organizational side, I’d like to see more people follow the example set by NorCal Premier Soccer on our state end. There’s been a lot of great work there done in providing free, or at least very cheap, coach education by some world-class clinicians that come from all levels of the game. The license-system is just one facet of what makes up a coach’s development.
SA: Anything else you’d like to address?
NICK LUSSON: I’m encouraged that these debates are happening. If there’s a silver-lining to our failure to qualify for the World Cup, it’s that it’s forcing us to take a harder look in the mirror at our own work. I know one of my first reactions was to ask myself, what am I doing down here at a lower rung of the ladder to help us succeed at the next Cup? If we’re all willing to first admit that we’re a part of the problem, then we can all be a part of the solutions to come.