When my friend Hugo Schoukens – the owner of Double Pass – told me years ago about the pay-to-play system in the USA, I did not know what he meant. Now I know. I know that it is a billion dollar business and a reality that have to be reckoned and lived with.
I now also know that the pay-to-play system -- even though some scholarships are offered -- is neither democratic nor egalitarian unlike elsewhere on mother earth. As a result, mostly white sub-urban kids can play the organized game. African-Americans and Latinos are usually left out by the pay-to-play system.
Thirty eight percent of our population is non-white. African-Americans constitute 12.6 % of our society. Except for children of blacks of Caribbean or African with an immediate immigrant origin, there is a cultural barrier between African-Americans and soccer. This barrier needs to be cracked, but this is another issue for another article. Latinos constitute 17.3 % of our population. Unlike African-Americans, there is no cultural barrier between them and soccer. On the contrary, they are born or live in a world immersed in soccer culture. We do not know what percentage of the Latino community does not play organized soccer and why they cannot or do not play organized soccer. They play soccer but in unaffiliated leagues. This percentage and the reasons other than the limitations imposed by pay-to-play system are worth investigating.
I live in Texas. The Hispanic community consists of 37.6% of the overall population of Texas. This is more than twice the country’s average. I just wanted to look for organizations that give a fair, cheap or free chance of participation to the talented Hispanic kids in a youth soccer world –- both in urban and non-urban surroundings -- dominated by pay-to-play system.
The best-known project is Ed Garza’s project in San Antonio: Urban Soccer Leadership Academy (https://www.uslasoccer.org ). Ed Garza is the former mayor of San Antonio. There had been coverage of his project in the national media. It is a very exciting project that uses the school system as the basis of the program. After I meet with Ed Garza in the weeks ahead, I will have a better chance to talk about the project.
There are other islands of hope in Texas for the underprivileged but talented Hispanic kids. All three of these are based on existing clubs and this list is definitely not exhaustive in the state or in the country. Here they are:
Fort Worth Vaqueros FC. Fort Worth Vaqueros FC is a soccer club formed in 2013. They play in the NPSL. The NPSL operation of the club is run by a group of full-time professionals headed by former MLS executive Michael Hitchcock and seems profitable. Fort Worth with a population of 874,168 is the 15th largest city in the USA and is considered an urban setting. Fort Worth is very culturally and ethnically diverse. In 2010, the population of Fort Worth consisted of 34% Hispanic. Following historical trends, this percentage is thought to have increased to 40% in 2018. If you add 20% African-Americans, the majority of the urban center is non-white. There is no first-tier professional team of any sport in the city.
Vaqueros FC decided to have a free-to-play academy for the underprivileged kids of the urban area, which means in this case mostly Latinos. The city of Fort Worth contributed to the project by loaning an amount of money to convert old run-down tennis courts in Sycamore Park into a training facility. Sycamore Park is in a problematic area of the city surrounded by mostly Latino communities. The loan is a low-interest loan for 10 years. The cost of the power usage for lighting the facility will be borne by the city. Vaqueros FC have just finished converting the old tennis courts in the Park into a 7v7 training facility. The facility has a very good state of the art turf surface. Facility will also be used to house 7v7 non-recreational adult games to generate money to pay the loan. The fences around the facility will have ads of the sponsors, creating another source for back payment of the loan.
The academy will only train at the Sycamore Facility but will play its games elsewhere in the city. The parents of the select Academy will only pay for the uniforms. Currently it is a boy’s small-sided game Academy for U10 through U7. The players will be selected from the area and will consist of 12 to 18 players depending on the age group. They plan on expanding to cover all youth age groups
Laredo Heat. Laredo Heat is a soccer club that currently plays in the NPSL. The club was established in 2004. It previously played in the PDL and won the national championship in 2007 while playing in the final in 2006, 2008 and 2011. Laredo is a Texan town in the border area right across Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It has a population of about 250,000, mostly Hispanic (95.6 %). Being so close to Mexico and having such a Hispanic population, it has a real soccer culture. Unfortunately, out of a population of 250,000, Laredo has only at best a few hundred U.S. Soccer registered players. There might be multiple reasons for this low registration number; leading one is definitely the pay-to-play system which is prevalent in the country. The city of Laredo has very few and inadequate soccer fields. There are few licensed coaches in the city. That is the backdrop.
Laredo Heat has a youth program with an ambitious goal of becoming a Development Academy. Both the NPSL team and the youth program use the facilities of Texas A&M International University. The owner/president of Laredo Heat is a local businessman: Shashi Vaswani. The Vaswani family has decided to pay back the community which helped them to flourish their businesses by making the competitive part of the youth program completely non-pay-to-play. They have recently signed a Technical Cooperation Protocol with Houston Dynamo Youth Academy. Dynamo will see Laredo Heat youth program as a potential source for its Academy whereas Laredo Heat will utilize the technical expertise of Dynamo to strengthen its coaching abilities. So it is a win-win situation. In the 2018-2019 season, Laredo Heat will try to compete at the highest level of STYSA -- an affiliate of USYSA -- with U12, U15 and U16 boys teams.
Galaxy SC (Round Rock). Round Rock is a city north of Austin with a population of 125,000 of which 25% is Hispanic. With the surrounding cities like Georgetown, Pflugerville and Hutto, the overall population of the region might reach half a million. The city calls itself the “Sports Capital of Texas.” There is AAA minor-league baseball team, the Round Rock Express which plays its games in the Dell diamond. Dell Computer has its headquarters in Round Rock. There is also Round Rock SC which plays in UPSL. The youth scene is dominated by the big non-Round Rock youth clubs of the region and all of them have the pay-to-play model. Round Rock has many quality soccer fields which are being under used by the genuine Round Rock soccer community. The city has just built a 10 field (5 turf + 5 grass) multi-purpose facility. It is currently rebuilding the old Old Settlers Park soccer facility.
Galaxy SC was formed last year. In their first year of existence, Galaxy has formed nine teams competing in competitive leagues of USYSA and US Club Soccer ranging from U11 to U18 for both boys and girls. Galaxy has worked out a collaboration agreement with the Round Rock Parks and Recreation Department such that the City PARD runs the recreational soccer leagues in Round Rock for the small sided games age groups U6 through U8; Galaxy on the other hand through Richard Casseus -- the DOC and the president of the board for Galaxy -- trains the voluntary coaches of this recreational league, provides them with a curriculum, and run occasional training sessions to help the coaches. This league is not affiliated with US Soccer and has over 200 players and about 23 voluntary coaches in their first season. The City PARD charges $75 per player per season. Similarly Galaxy charges a very affordable fee from the mostly Latino parents of its competitive teams. The competitive system is not completely free-to-play (although they have scholarships for needy players) but very affordable compared to the other pay-to-play clubs in the region. In exchange for the technical support, Galaxy provides to the recreational league, they become a privilege user of the City’s facilities with very affordable rates. Galaxy is hoping the recreational leagues run by the City PARD will feed its competitive teams in the future.
If you look at all three projects there are as many commonalities as differences. Two of them have the support of the city, one does not. One of them is an urban project, the other two are not. One of them has coaching issues, the other two do not. One of them works closely with a professional team, the others do not. One of them is an affordable model, the other two are free-to-play. I can continue with the list but I will not.
They are all in Texas and they are all based on an existing club. I am sure there are other similar projects in Texas and elsewhere. This article was just about a sample that I knew about. Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the Hitches, Richards and Shashis of our soccer world to step up and find solutions to the underprivileged talented kids who are left out of the system due to the high cost of participation. We can thank them and should thank them on behalf of our beautiful game. Maybe the system -- whatever one like to call the system -- ought to look at these and other projects around the country and come up with a few templates that can be derived from the commonalities of these projects. The system might find and show potential sources to help to reduce the cost of participation.
Then the Hitches, Richards and Shashis of our world will increase and the underprivileged talented kids of our beautiful game will be embraced by a more democratic and egalitarian system like elsewhere on the planet. This will lead to a better MNT and WNT performances since we will be embracing all the colors and potential of our diverse society not just the ones who can afford it.
Otherwise, if the system does not use these models and take a step, the current system of pay-to-play business model will not release enough oxygen for the Hitches, Richards and Shashis to breathe and survive. They will not die but they will quit. The loser will not be the pay-to-play business model but will be our beautiful game in our country which will never flourish as fast as or as much as we envision it to be.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.