Soccer in the inner cities, the missing link between recreational and competitive soccer

Although you cannot pinpoint to the mission statement of U.S. Soccer in its website right away like it should be with any organization of this magnitude; you can eventually find the following mission statement:

To make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and continue the development of at all recreational and competitive levels.

So U.S. Soccer is mandated by its mission to develop soccer at all fronts. So its success lies only in the development of soccer. The money it raises is only meaningful if it is used for the development of the game.

Another metric that is used around the world to judge the success of the soccer federations is the NTs success and FIFA rankings. The current ongoing change process in the presidency of U.S. Soccer was triggered by nothing but the failure of the USMNT to qualify for the WC 2018. This message should be well perceived by the delegates voting at the AGM in February if we want our MNT to be one of the best in the world as well as keeping the top status for the WNT.

Recreational soccer can be defined as soccer for fun and competitive soccer as soccer for development. All elite players for the competitive soccer have to come through the ranks of recreational soccer. Hence recreational soccer is the bottom layer of our soccer pyramid. Some prefer to call recreational soccer grassroots, but I will stick with terminology of U.S. Soccer.

There is not too much correlation and passage between recreational and competitive soccer and one can easily say that quantity does not automatically yield quality. Iceland for example with a population of 330,000 qualified for the WC from Europe. The Japanese WNT which is ranked 9th in FIFA rankings and which won the WC in 2011 chooses its WNT among only 35,000 registered players. (Japan has a population of 126 million.) On the other hand, USA MNT, which did not qualify for the 2018 WC, has more than 3 million registered men players.  Unless U.S. Soccer defines the link between recreational and competitive soccer, recreational soccer will not serve its developmental purpose.

Recreational soccer has two functions in the USA. The first one is social engineering. Through soccer kids are propelled for a better and healthier lifestyle as well as trying to create better citizens. The second one is to create the monetary basis of pay-to-play soccer business which is worth billions of dollars. Although economically and socially both functions are praise worthy, they will not necessarily by themselves generate a successful competitive base for the NTs. 

On the other hand, a recent survey by Aspen Institute shows a steady decline in soccer participation for children from the ages 6 to 12 in the last eight years. This is not specific to soccer: All team sports take their share in this decline. Naturally, this decline will negatively affect the social engineering aspect of recreational soccer.

It is obvious that recreational soccer in our country in numbers and in business is well, alive and kicking. There are two problems: One is we do leave out underprivileged children who cannot afford the cost of the pay-to-play system. Especially Latinos who grow up in a soccer culture is a demographical group we miss. Underprivileged children who cannot afford to pay to play exist mainly in inner cities as well as some suburban areas. The border area with Mexico, which is not urban, is full of such talent also.

The other one is the problem is to properly develop kids from the ages of two to 12, identify and funnel the talents into a competitive and elite system and create the correct environment (pro and semi-pro leagues) to enhance their skills. This is where we are failing although we do have a correct elite pathway for U12-U18 in the Development Academies (DA). DAs, unfortunately, only embrace only 20,000 talented players. 

U.S. Soccer should have a three pronged approach:

1) Present an alternative to Pay-to-Play development method by changing the incentives of youth clubs;

2) Increase the socio-economic diversity within youth development ranks starting at the recreational level;

3) Develop new markets within youth development – the inner-city environment.

Inner city is an area we must focus on. We should create the correct environment for the inner city U10 and below kids. Recently, there have been some interesting projects spearheaded by U.S. Soccer Foundation to bring in the inner-city kids into the soccer system. It aims to bring in one million kids into the system by building 1000 mini-pitches by 2026. The concept of using mini-pitches as part of a development process surfaced about 20 years ago with UEFA’s Hat-Trick project. UEFA funded its members to build these mini-pitches. Unfortunately, only Germany used the concept of mini-pitches effectively as an integral part of its youth development program. U.S. Soccer should do the same as outlined below if it wants to utilize the concept for development of soccer.

There are other inner city projects in the USA. 

1) Soccer in the Streets (Atlanta)

2) Street Soccer USA (National)

3) Urban Soccer Leadership Academy (San Antonio)

4) Grassroots Soccer (International)

5) City based initiative (New York City)

Most of those projects use the city’s or ISD’s facilities. All of them have a philanthropic cause and are social-engineering projects. Naturally, since U.S. Soccer is not involved directly with these projects, none of them has the primary goal of being part of our soccer development system. Unless the City or the ISD is involved with such pcojects there will be maintenance and security issues for the facilities in inner cities.

The mini-pitches can be good incubators for the U10 age groups. In a way, they will simulate street soccer that never existed in our country.  They will replace half basketball courts used to develop the best basketball players on the planet for the development of soccer players.

There are three pillars to soccer youth development: Facilities, organization and human resources (players, coaches, medical staff etc.). The current projects do deliver the facilities in one form or the other. The neighborhoods provide the players. What are missing are the coaches and the organization. Although most of those projects do talk about coaching in different contexts, there is no one single approach to coaching in these projects.

To cut the long story short, U.S. Soccer should take the responsibility of the organization pillar of the inner city soccer development -- including providing part time appropriately licensed coaches. Absorb, integrate, and revolutionize the youth development model within the urban core. Networking the efforts of all the stakeholders (parks & recreation, schools, city/state/federal, U.S. Soccer Foundation, charities, sponsors and parents) should reduce the costs. Establishing a national network will attract sponsors and with WC 2026 bringing the spotlight to America’s game 0– what better showcase moment.

Naturally, the same pitches can be used for various purposes like small-sided games for adults, but for the U10 kids the use of the facilities under the organization of U.S. Soccer should be an integral part of the national youth development program. Unless this is done, these projects will only serve their social engineering side of the project and contribute to recreational soccer not to competitive soccer. Inner-city projects can be the missing link between recreational and competitive soccer.

The inner-city kids can only be an asset to our NTs if U.S. Soccer takes on the organizational responsibility of these projects. Inner-city projects could and should be our future incubator for the soccer stars of our country.

Ahmet Guvener ( 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, TX.

13 comments about "Soccer in the inner cities, the missing link between recreational and competitive soccer".
  1. Ric Fonseca, December 30, 2017 at 12:53 p.m.

    I amd somewhat in agreement with the author, however, in speaking of the "social engineering" aspect he fails to note that while the intent is magnanimous, he has completely forgotten the social-political aspect (emphasis on the "political") given that there are those elected politicians, from the local neghborhoods, to the local elected officials sitting on councils, city-county and state - that will jump at the opportunity to, yes, take credit for establishing such inner city projects. And if, as he proposes, U.S. Soccer "takes on the organizational responsibility of these projects," I can bet you even money that the local politicos will not waste one second, minute, or hour out of their political menus to get their say.  Then again, maybe this is why U.S. Soccer has not attempted to take on this task simply and because they know just how and why of the local political atmosphere.
    I also want to say that while the title of the article is eye catching, to devote what appears to be one paragraph to the "inner city Latinos, is in my humble opinion, appearing to be a slight and the usual payment of lip service TO the local inner city Latino players. Perhaps he should also ask why there seems to be a severe lack of Latino league U.S. Soccer affiliation, whether at the local, or state youth associations? Is it because of what the founding organization of what became "recreational" soccer strict and blinded rules and regulations at the time of its - rec leagues - inception and theme that everyone plays no matter what?  
    OK, I will concede that there is a heck of aLOT yet to be desired, and Mr. Guvener's essay merits a heck of a lot of attention, but as the saying goes, "the devil is in the details."  Food for thought eh, so play on and Happy New Year 2018!

  2. Farid Hadj-Hamou, December 30, 2017 at 1:31 p.m.

    Great article and ideas but I would keep the USSDA or USSF outside this concept of inner city street soccer. The inner city soccer program should be an unstructured free play with no coaches involved..let the kids play freely, learn and enjoy the game..
    What we want is our kids to develop the love of the game and become naturally skilled so some of them who desire to play at higher levels, will have opportunities..

  3. John Gordon, December 30, 2017 at 7:04 p.m.

    You have some problems that people don't like to address.

    In the late 70's, when we were forming the soccer leagues in Central Texas, you would have 80% of the kids on a team with their original two parents.  We kept prices really low and the dads and/or moms jumped in to help with the organizational work or coaching or refereeing.   Mainly the dads learned refereeing (certified) and did it for free in our area.  The annual meeting of the soccer association had hundreds show up.

    Fast forward forty years, 50 % of the kids are from split families, single parents don't have time to get involved, children are used to referee most games in some areas (for good pay).  

    Worse, children are more & more being sucked into a culture of hand-held impersonal-communication devices and entertainment streaming - rich and "poor" alike - thus the dropping desire to play a "team sport".

    The two parent and affluent single parents who care want their kids to be associated with a controled, organized high-opportunity program - think pay for play.

    Any form of renewal of mass soccer league participation has to have these characteristics:
    1.  Minimized requirement for parent involvement to operate the program.
    2.  Low cost for particiopation.
    3.  Development of the required cadre of coaches & referees for quality of program
    4.  Convenient facilities for both games & practices
    5.  Open fair competition (no ringer teams).
    6.  Focus on Under 10 and Under 12 recreation competitions.
    7.  Under 8 is set up for fun.  Under 6 is mainly babysitting!!
    8.  Organizational stability of program from year to year.
    9.  Convenience of soccer season with societal calendar.

  4. Bob Ashpole, December 31, 2017 at 12:11 a.m.

    John and Ric both make very good points.

    Farid, I think you go too far in eliminating all adult coaching. Unorganized play is extremely important, but so is a sprinkling of expert feedback. If you don't have any formal coaching available, the kids are completely dependent on peers for feedback. For that reason the best unorganized play is mixed ages, at least a 3-4 year spread. 

  5. Kent James, December 31, 2017 at 11:58 a.m.

    Certainly I agree with the thrust of the argument, and appreciate the link to the success of the German efforts to build 1000 mini-soccer fields.  I would encourage trying different variations (in a few different cities, with different demographics), before going country-wide. The issues that need to be investigated are the structure and the surface.  Should these surfaces be highly scheduled with skilled adult supervision at all times (an expensive, and maybe counterproductive process?), or should they be opportunities for free play (without skilled supervision, or even without supervision at all, emulating street soccer).  As for the surface, turf or a futsal hardcourt?  Hardcourts would require less maintenance (and maybe less expense?), and could be used for other things (basketball, volleyball, tennis), though the latter may infringe on the court's use for soccer.  

    The goal of the program should be to expand the base of the pyramid, but getting more players touching the ball, while minimizing the costs....

  6. Ridge Mahoney replied, January 12, 2018 at 1:58 a.m.

    program started in 2009

  7. R2 Dad, December 31, 2017 at 3:57 p.m.

    We're talking around what Koni has been advocating for years on this site: a bunch of small fields where little kids can play. We have something like this, but there is only 1 in the Mission District:,-122.4128871,39m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x808f7e377d673dcf:0xac6796bb9fc1c3c0!8m2!3d37.7579961!4d-122.4127203
    In a perfect world, this little pitch would have coffee and benches nearby so parents could keep an eye on their u8 kids while they play. X 20 in SF and we'd complete the first phase of proper youth development for all kids WITHOUT  pay-to-play.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, December 31, 2017 at 4:55 p.m.

    When we get to the point where the assumption is that the parents are on the field playing with their kids (instead of needing a bench and coffee), then we will have reclaimed our lost sports-oriented culture. 

    In the 1960s everyone played sports, pickup and organized, recess and physical education was still an important part of education, but there was so much widespread concern about declining fitness levels that there the President had a formal fitness program for the nation's youth. How far our standards have fallen in 3 generations.

  9. R2 Dad replied, December 31, 2017 at 8:37 p.m.

    One of the benefits to this small pitch is that it's so small there isn't really any room for adults on it. It's made for 4v4 or 3v3 little kids. Maybe you could put coaches/grownups in goal--I've seen that--but it actually perfect for little people to play together.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, January 1, 2018 at 1:06 a.m.

    Looks like 10 x 20 yds. What makes you think adults cannot play small sided games in that space? I have played 3v2 in 5 x 5 yds. That was too tight imo but I wasn't running the exercise.

  11. frank schoon, January 1, 2018 at 4:40 p.m.

    Farid, Your quote<" we want is our kids to develop the love of the game and become naturally skilled so some of them who desire to play at higher levels, will have opportunities"> says it all. A love for the game needs to be established before kids want to move higher levels of play. And yes, Bob, kids need to play in MIXED AGES for that is the big boiling pot a cauldron that mixes and cooks so many of the aspects of soccer which can not learned and digested to the kids, in any other way. Everything that I learned as a kid playing street soccer, had nothing to do with Diversity, Income Disparity, Parental involvement of which there was NONE Organizational aspects or other BS.  Kids, for example, in the Latino neighborhood, don't think about Diversity when they play, for when they see a ball it's all about soccer, soccer and playing for they love the game. It is the adults that bring into play all the social-economic-engineering garbage.... Allow the kids just to play and have and see where it takes them... 

  12. Ben Myers, January 5, 2018 at 2:01 p.m.

    There is ample room for player development even in the so-called recreational leagues.  Kids have more fun when they become more competent players, and they, themselves, can see the results of their own development.  And, of course, today's rec player may be tomorrow's competitive player.

  13. Ben Myers, January 5, 2018 at 2:08 p.m.

    I agree that there is room for relatively unorganized pickup soccer.  Nearly 20 years ago, when I was pres of our local soccer club, I took the baton from my predecessor and publicized pickup soccer for all every Sunday evening in the summer.  Kids of all ages from 8 to 60 showed up and the less skilled ones learned from the experienced players.  This strengthened the club in many ways, but most importantly volunteer adult coaches got to learn about actually playing the game, so they became more effective as coaches.  Sadly, this practice has fallen by the wayside as the economy worsened and the volunteers running the club barely have time to do much more than call for player registrations and organize teams.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications