Terry Fisher on why pro/rel in an integrated league structure is essential at the youth level

For more than four decades, dating back to his appointment as head coach of the NASL Los Angeles Aztecs when he was 25, Terry Fisher has been a proponent of pushing the game forward in the United States.

He has coached teams and worked as an executive with teams on many levels. As CEO and Executive Director of Washington Youth Soccer, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, he oversees the sixth-largest state association in the country.

He has proposed to U.S. Soccer a restructured system of league competition for players 13 and older by which teams in separate youth organizations compete against each other regularly, with promotion and relegation used to delineate the caliber of play. He also wants a huge marketing and publicity campaign to greatly increase the registration numbers of youth players from the current 4 million.

SOCCER AMERICA: There are myriad issues being discussed as the U.S. Soccer presidential election in February draws closer with eight candidates officially nominated. But what is not being discussed enough?

TERRY FISHER: I wanted to focus on the youth-soccer piece of this because otherwise we get a lot of overview and not much substance. What I’ve been telling people running for office is, ‘Focus on one thing.’ And you probably see we’re getting not much of anything and a broad brush of everything.

For a long time, we’ve kicked down the road the issue of dealing with youth soccer in America because it was a swamp and unfortunately that bill has now become due and payable
How did we get to this point, where U.S. Soccer has been so busy it hasn’t been able to govern the sport in this country?

U.S. Soccer has an obligation from FIFA to manage the sport in America. The fact that they have been unwilling to get into the swamp of youth soccer has been the problem for the last 30 years. You can also chart the bank account of U.S. Soccer. As the money changed, so changed the relationship. U.S. Youth was king of the mountain back in the days of Don Greer [founder of U.S. Youth Soccer], when they had all the money.

In 1987, 1988, the federation had to borrow money from U.S. Youth to pay some of its bills. When that balance shifted, with all the money and the surplus that came after 1994, youth soccer went on the back burner and not to the benefit of soccer. Suddenly, we had multiple youth organizations, to the detriment of U.S. Soccer. Competition in this case did not make us better. It made us worse. How many places in the world does that exist?
What is the most important task facing the next president?

The new president of U.S. Soccer has to have just one thing in mind: How do we solve the youth-soccer development problem in America? Major League Soccer and pro soccer and all that stuff and all the platforms that people are hypothesizing; do you think the U.S. Soccer president has anything to do with pro soccer in America?

No. Who cares? They’re going to run their business. Does the EPL rely on the English FA? Are you kidding me? I suggest MLS does not look to U.S. Soccer anymore to do anything. ‘Just stay out my way because we’re billionaires.’

With the vast amount of dollars and the vast amount of money that SUM has accumulated, we need to reap the rewards and create media interest in our sport. Not qualifying for the World Cup didn’t help. It’s just a minor setback but we need to launch into the future and I think we are in the right moment to do it. The Petri dish is perfect for this perfect storm.

You want the next president to implement regular league play within the states by which teams in the various youth organizations compete against each other, rather in their own separate competitions. Why is this important?

As a federation, we have now come face-to-face with the issue that we need to be proactive and resolve the youth-soccer problems or it doesn’t matter what we do at the other end of the game.

We must mandate that we play each other even if we’re in rival youth associations. Who cares? The organizations can keep their money but they have to play each other.

We have to look under the emperor’s skirt and see what’s underneath. This is all smoke and mirrors and deception of parents, and marketing at its worst. The truth lies in the table. And the only year it’s a problem is year 1, when you structure it. Every year after that is promotion and relegation, you move up and down.
Why is the promotion-relegation dynamic important in this revised structure?

The teams’ records will speak for themselves and the marketplace will sort out the money that these clubs can charge parents, because the proof will in the pudding. There will no longer be the illusion that you are something that you are not. If you play an integrated schedule, Man United can say what they want but Manchester City is better.

The only place that pro/rel works in America is at the youth level. Anybody who wastes one minute arguing about pro/rel professionally in America is a lunatic, because it ain’t going to work. Never going to happen, not in your lifetime, not in a thousand years. So we should just stop talking about it.

Unless you end fragmentation and aggregate all the players above the age of 12 or 13 into a vertical league structure, we’re going to remain mediocre to poor for the foreseeable future. I don’t anybody can even argue with that fact.

When we have multiple youth associations running multiple competitions within a state association, all competitions are diminished.
Most state associations don’t want the federation telling them what to do. What makes you think this kind of decree can work?

We don’t need a soccer summit, we don’t need more meetings, we need people who can make a plan of action and move forward. We were going to win the World Cup in 2010; we need another 10-year plan. Really?

I’m taking the one percent of kids who play in the academies out of this and putting it over there. That will take 50 years to shake out. Leave that over there.

I’m talking about what’s left in the structure. Those kids that will develop need to play against each other. They can’t be divided between U.S. Club and U.S. Youth. Impossible. If we want to stay average in the world, we can continue to play separately. It is so clear that the U.S. Soccer president needs to mandate this structure.

I’m not putting out this mandate for a debate. I’m telling you that if you want to be an affiliated member of U.S. Soccer youth, you have to play in a vertically integrated league structure within your membership state, which in this case is Washington. Why is that difficult?
As an example, how would this work in Washington?

We have clubs here that have $5-million budgets. In our state association of 100,000 kids, we are running like a finely tuned engine with 10 or 11 people. It’s not that difficult. I have a commissioner of a league that has one thousand teams. I got people that do cups, I got people that do Olympic Development. You don’t need a staff of hundreds. You still have structure below you. Professional staffs run all the clubs in this state.

The game has been professionalized. That’s the way the game has changed, for the better by the way. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the volunteers, but everybody’s busy, and everybody’s got six jobs and has to make sure the kids get home.

I’ve yet to hear from anyone to tell me the structure I’ve proposed can’t work. All we need is for U.S. Soccer to mandate that structure, and it happens.
You have some rather radical thoughts about how to drive up the numbers of registered youth players. First of all, what’s the purpose of this effort?

One, we have to increase participation from 4 million to 10 million. Set a goal. We do not have enough children playing soccer to be as relevant as we should. We need to increase participation. The second thing is that success in America does not start with the national team or MLS or any pro league. It starts with a foundation of youth.

We need total marketing integration from Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer to grow this sport through the Web sites and on-line registration to make the numbers big enough so we can actually succeed.

The only way to recruit more kids playing is if you’re able to harness mass-market media, and the only people who are spending money every single week on television is Major League Soccer, USL and U.S. Soccer. Every broadcast and every U.S. Soccer game has to have a huge component about, ‘How do we register more kids?'

Volunteerism in America is dead. D-E-A-D. The professionals have to figure this out. The only way you’re going to recruit more kids is to put it into all of your broadcasts. Every game needs to have a PSA [Public Service Announcement] about going to a Web site and registering your kid to play soccer, every Hispanic broadcast.

That is how we recruit more kids. It isn’t mom and pop knocking on doors asking people to register their kids to play soccer. It has to be a coordinated, marketing plan, from the top of the game, which sells tickets for MLS and grows the sport for U.S. Soccer. It’s no different than recruiting more engineers for Google or the space program. It has to be a nationally coordinated effort.

More kids playing also means more people involved in the game, and therefore potential fans for the pro teams and the federation. But it’s taken decades for the game to grow as much as it has. Is this how some of U.S. Soccer’s surplus is best spent?

If you ask about the money, the money we have is already being spent on media. We just have to allocate enough time and structure to promote it. All the stuff we’ve been doing, yes, we have to do more of it. I get it. But we have to make soccer access easier and we do that through mass media.

Some marketing person can put together and figure out how to get the help of MLS to promote that nationally. We need a national goal to double our registration numbers.

This idea is so self-serving for pro soccer, it’s a no-brainer. That’s the role of the federation. Put that as a national goal. You want to be the preeminent sport, you need to double the number of kids registered. That’s a starting point.
And what is the end point?

We need a federation that leads from the front. I get the arrogance from MLS and the athletes. I get it, I get it, I get it. But now it has come home to roost. This is what we have to resolve.

13 comments about "Terry Fisher on why pro/rel in an integrated league structure is essential at the youth level".
  1. James Madison, December 27, 2017 at 6:37 p.m.

    On behalf of all the kids who want to play for love of the game and fun and are neither dreaming of nor interested in playing professionally, let alone on one of the national teams, let me disagree with my friend, although long time no see, Terry, so far as they are concerned. Retain a home in clubs for these players with appropriate competition at a nominal cost or encourage development of the AYSO model.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, December 27, 2017 at 10:07 p.m.

    Why am I not "allowed" or my comment section (read: rectangle) not accepted in the comment section? Instead it disappears or is just not there, other than my name....

  3. Ric Fonseca, December 27, 2017 at 10:13 p.m.

    Funny the previous comment appeared, but when I wanted to expand my comment, again NOTHING!!! And BTW, i knew Terry back in the early 70's when he migrated out west, coached (Whittier college???) then during one of the old SCISA college coaches meetings, then UCLA Coach Dennis Storer sorta extended an invite to coach in Westwood, and lo and behold, during the summer when Coach Storer had gone to England, Terry Fisher appeared, and thus the saga of Terry Fisher's arrival as assistant coach to UCLA became "legendary" as the then AD JD Morgan, had not even cleared it with Coach Storer. Terry's assencion in the sport, was when John Chaffetz (sp) owner of the then LA Aztecs hired him away from UCLA - as the story tells it above - More later on Terry, maybe?

  4. Ric Fonseca, December 27, 2017 at 11:58 p.m.

    I completely agree with Terry that volunteerism in this country is D-E-A-D, and yet an above comment says that the ayso model must be followed. This would be absolute madness, why, it is because of ayso's concept that the youth development became very stymied that is until some very knowledgeable people were recruited and became actual paid staffers and sorta-changed the ayso "model" Consider that back then, virtually ALL of the ayso people were non-soccer people, save its founder and some Euros where the organization was first spawned. So Fisher hit it on the head, and he does have some excellent points. More later on this...

  5. Sharon Anderon, December 28, 2017 at 7:15 a.m.

    Is this the same Terry Fisher who brought the (obviously defunct)  ALeague Geckos to Sacramento? You forgot to pay your staff back then. Still bitter - my (now ex) husband got bilked and coached the Geckos for free. 

  6. David Whiteman, December 28, 2017 at 7:21 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more that building participation at the youth level is what is needed to advance soccer in the US. We need to expand the appeal of the game so that more of the top athletes choose to focus on soccer instead of another sport. But something to realize, at least here in Maryland, is that the soccer landscape goes way beyond US Youth and US club. If you look at soccer participation at the youngest ages (e.g. K-6), more kids are playing through YMCAs, Rec Departments or Boys and Girls clubs than with organizations affiliated with USSF. And those local organizations don't have any connection to a USSF affiliated club. So USSF can mandate all they want but those mandates don't affect most of the youngest players in Maryland. Somehow all those other organizations need to be brought under the USSF fold if actions by USSF will have real affect on how youth soccer is organized.

  7. R2 Dad replied, December 28, 2017 at 12:39 p.m.

    I think I've read similar comments here before, too. The goal may be to increase registration of these players, but what do they get for their money? Why would they register? Past USSF practice has been to dictate and force compliance. Hopefully the new USSF president will bring a more bottom-up approach to this issue.

  8. John Soares, December 28, 2017 at 1:12 p.m.

    Vonlunteerism is N-O-T dead. In Terry's own back yard, the emphasis on primier and "Pay To Play" has left the world of "Rec" soccer and volunteers in the backburner.
    Without interest or leadership from the top.

  9. frank schoon, December 29, 2017 at 5:08 p.m.

    Who cares about Pro/rel in youth , although they had it when I coached. Again this looks like somebody who sees improvement in development via structure and organization and administration, which ,to me, tells me doesn't have clue about real player development. Steet soccer kids in my days had no problem developing into good ball players for we had no pro/rel in the streets; and I"ll guarantee you those kids in my days had more ball skills in their little toe than today's kids with all their organiziation backing. We need to look at the 'nuts and bolts" of development occurring on the field not at organization for we are organized to the hilt.

  10. Bob Ashpole, December 29, 2017 at 7:24 p.m.

    I agree with Frank. Compared to a lot of other posters here, I have little playing and less coaching experience, but I have a lifetime of problem solving experience. Focusing on providing even more organization and structure on formal team competitions will not improve PLAYER development. 

    Assuming that I buy into the idea that the most efficient developmental model has the best players playing at the top of the soccer pyramid, the best players won't get to the top of the pyramid by promotion and relegation of TEAMS twice a year. We would want players to move up and down the pyramid, not teams. More structure only provides more restrictions to the player's mobility in the system. 

    Personally, I believe that the most important things in player development happen outside of formal organized matches. The article's development model doesn't even include the most important aspects of development. 

    When I approached a new problem I would not only listen to what people were saying but also I had to look at what people were doing. Technical competence doesn't mean people have the ability to describe what they do. Any former player turned coach knows that demonstrating how to do something is far easier than telling someone how to do something.

    Mr. Fisher no doubt knows how to develop players on a grass roots level, but he is leaving all that knowledge off the table when he starts talking about how to develop players on the national level. 

    This is not a failing in technical competence but a failure in problem solving competence. It is a common failure and why I was able to make a career out of solving other people's problems using their technical competence. 

    The success of the new president will depend largely on their ability to solve problems. I am optimistic because the best soccer players and coaches are usually also great problem solvers in the context of the game. 

  11. R2 Dad, December 29, 2017 at 9:13 p.m.

    This is when you know your country-wide development program is working:

    The people claiming our country is too big to operate a similar system have a vested interest in the status quo.

  12. Ginger Peeler, December 29, 2017 at 10:17 p.m.

    I’m late to the party ( again), but have a couple comments. When my kids were growing up in the San Diego area in the 80s, Soccer was the first sport offered young children. They could start playing at 5, while in kindergarten. As I recall, t-ball started in 1st grade and basketball was even later. That, of corse, gave Soccer a clear advantage. Also, at that time, most San Diego leagues were USYSA affiliated and fielded both recreational and competitive (traveling) teams. AYSO was in the Los Angeles area, but they were strictly recreational. I was one of two registrars for our league, with over 500 children signing up for recreational soccer. When my daughter made the traveling team, I became registrar for the competitive side of the league. At that time, we were all volunteers. Our expenses were limited to the cost of uniforms and traveling expenses. After 2 years, we were one of the first in our league to hire a professional coach and we played “up” the next season. I’ve wondered what the problem is with the “pay to play” that I’ve been reading about for years. If all staffers are now professional, I think I understand. So, if you double the enrollment and still manage with the same number of professionals, the expenses will work out. If you can’t generate that many more registrations, what do you do? It seems to me that someone’s going to have to come up with a “Plan B”. 

  13. Ric Fonseca replied, December 31, 2017 at 5:26 p.m.

    Ginger, I fully understand and agree with your evaluations.  Yes, here in the LA area, ayso was the way to go, and even Sigi Schmid, Wynalda, Caligiuri, and Donovan can attest to the recreational aspect. But consider also, that as early as the '70 the competitive "leagues" or "organizations" such as the Calif Youth Soccer Association (CYSA) was started and at least in LS county, ayso wasn't too happy about it. CYSA-S, and CYSA-N, affiliated with USYSA, while ayso was given "affiliate status," that is until their president threatened to and filed a law suit citing the US OLympic Charter that they, ayso, should be given direct membership to USYSA equal to the competitive state associations.  When my kids started to play, I asked around and of course, ayso leaped into the picture, however, after seeing/experiencing the blatant dislike by some local "ayso regional commissioners) against those of us more knowledgeable soccer people, we decided to go competitive.  And so I asked some friends in "clubs" in our area, and then there were only two: Real Madrid, and Real Santa Monica.  Ironically, most of the clubs' leadership were very knowledegable folks, from Europe and Latin America, etc. CYSA-S sure gave ayso a run for its money, even and despite the above four former pros.... who when then playing for the youth group, could be seen playing for more competitive sides when not playing recreational.  Plan B?  Quien sabe, amiga!!!  Saludos  & Feliz Ano Nuevo/Happy New Year!  

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