U.S. Club Soccer's Kevin Payne: 'There's way too much pressure being put on kids at too young an age'

Is American youth soccer suffering from a decline in popularity, as reported by The New York Times? We spoke to Kevin Payne, the CEO of U.S. Club Soccer, which sanctions leagues such as the ECNL, NPL and ENPL.

Kevin Payne, U.S. Club Soccer CEO

SOCCER AMERICA: What do you think of the notion, according to The New York Times, that “youth soccer participation has fallen significantly in America?” The article, based on figures from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and a statement from the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, reported that youth players are abandoning soccer “in alarming numbers.”

KEVIN PAYNE: I have been away so haven't read the report, just the article. I’ve always considered the participation numbers produced every year by the sporting goods industry to be so broad that they can be pretty suspect. They don’t try and determine who’s playing a sport in any sort of committed or organized way. It’s always kind of been, if you throw a basketball up in a hoop in your neighborhood, then you’re a basketball player.

It also depends on what population they’re defining. If they’re talking about white kids from the suburbs, then I suppose it’s possible that it’s down.

I don’t know what their methodology is, but in U.S. Soccer and the youth organizations, we’ve not seen a decline. The registration numbers have been almost completely flat for years.

For our organization, U.S. Club Soccer, our numbers have gone up, by a compounding rate of about 9 percent or so over the last six or seven years. But I’m not sure the pie is growing. I think some of that is simply that more kids are double-registering.

I don't see big drops in total numbers if you combine us and AYSO, SAY and U.S. Youth Soccer. Those numbers are pretty much the same.

And it’s impossible for me to believe that “youth soccer participation has fallen significantly in America” with the rate of immigration in our country. Whether it’s Latino or Asian or African, we see those leagues exploding around the country. So, I think their methodology could be flawed.

I think they often look for a headline. And the Aspen Institute tends to look for something that's going to draw attention to their opinions and ring an alarm bell.

Now, I do think there is a problem with kids leaving our game. …

SA: That’s been an issue for a very long time, that kids hit a certain age and decide to quit a sport …

KEVIN PAYNE: There are a significant number of young people who leave sports in general right before the age of 13. It's way too high a number in every sport. Soccer is a little bit higher than many other sports, but not all.

In baseball, for instance, there’s a huge drop off when you go to 90-foot base paths and a 60-foot mound. It’s just almost a different sport.

So, I do think there are a lot of things that we need to try to do to keep more kids in the game. I think there's a lot of issues. Almost all of them created by adults, that cause kids to want to leave.

But I'm not sure that I'd buy in to that giant alarm bell that they were trying to ring with that report.

SA: What about the possibility that kids are leaving soccer earlier than they were historically …

KEVIN PAYNE: U.S. Soccer is trying to conduct research on who’s leaving, when they’re leaving, why they’re leaving, which I think is a great first step to understanding the issue.

Anecdotally or maybe intuitively I would not be surprised that that’s the case [kids leaving at earlier ages], because I think there's way too much pressure being put on kids at too young an age to commit almost totally to soccer.

I think one of the worst offenders is the DA [U.S. Soccer Development Academy].

I think the whole idea of having aggressive D.A. program expansion below the age of 12 -- I just think it's dumb.

There's no evidence anywhere in any sport in any country to suggest that you can predict the future ability of players before the age of 12 anyway.

So, I'm not sure what the point of it is. What outcome they think they're going to achieve. But I think what it has done is just created a large class of young players who now are being told, you're not good enough. There is a very small number that are being anointed and a very large number that’s being told, you're not good enough.

I think that's a huge mistake. The DA is not the only one that’s doing that. A lot of youth soccer organizations do that. …

What’s probably an issue in our country, is kids who are on the best teams in clubs are getting pretty good training and pretty good coaching. But the kids on the lower level teams I think, in a lot of cases, those kids are not getting the same kind of training and experience.

And kids can see through those messages. Kids at those ages, when they're interacting with their peers, they want to feel valued, and if they feel like they're not valued, and they're not worthy, then you know they're much more likely to decide, I’m going to do something else.

SA: Children are also being urged to specialize in one sport at an earlier age ...

KEVIN PAYNE: I think kids should be playing more than one sport. Many of the best [soccer] players in the world have been successful in other sports.

If a kid says, I just want to play soccer, that’s all I want to do, that’s fine. But I think it’s important that parents and soccer clubs try and encourage kids to make those decisions for themselves.

What do you want to do? You’re only going to be a kid once. If you'd like to play basketball this season, then you should go play basketball – and soccer will be there when you come back.

I think we all, everybody who’s involved in this, has some level of complicity, and we just put way too much pressure on these kids. ...

We create a completely false sense of expectation. The parents now believe that there’s a straight line between training incessantly and becoming Venus or Serena Williams.

I think we need to do a much better job of educating parents about what this experience is supposed to be like so we can help them develop a better sense of perspective.

29 comments about "U.S. Club Soccer's Kevin Payne: 'There's way too much pressure being put on kids at too young an age'".
  1. humble 1, July 25, 2018 at 12:53 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more with Kevin.  The concept of 'elite' teams at U12 - a complete and utter travesty for youth soccer boys and now girls - because it degrades the rest of the competitions.  We need to give far better training and support to our coaches and trainers.  Especially those that choose a career working with the U-Littles as they build the foundation for the sport.  Nice job capturing Mr. Payne's thoughts Mike - you don't often get these folks speaking with such clarity.  I especially like the following quote - "I think the whole idea of having aggressive D.A. program expansion below the age of 12 -- I just think it's dumb." classic!

  2. s fatschel replied, July 25, 2018 at 10:19 a.m.

    Why is it dumb?  Look at every club in Europe has teams down to U12, including bundesliga, EPL, etc.  It's just another option for kids who want it...and are that talented. US Club, AYSO, usysa provide alternatives. What needs to stop is the long travel at U12.

  3. Kent James replied, July 25, 2018 at 11:33 a.m.

    s fatchel, it's fine to train kids (at as high a level as they can handle) at U12, but making it selective and competitive is counterproductive (you risk losing kids who are excluded, who may have become great players if they had not been cut).

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, July 25, 2018 at 11:37 a.m.

    S Fatschel, I think you missed the significance of the word "below". Or maybe the age bracket changes are confusing because U12 is now age 12, i.e., 12U. I read the statement to be talking about expansion below the 12U age bracket.

  5. s fatschel replied, July 25, 2018 at 2:44 p.m.

    I don't see anything on DA website about U10 which I agree is not necessary. Can you provide link please?

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, July 25, 2018 at 5:13 p.m.

    I don't know anything except for Payne's reference to expansion below age 12. I assume that he is reacting to internal USSF discussions.

  7. humble 1 replied, July 26, 2018 at 10:31 a.m.

    please exuse my self-reply - please understand - kids that are U12 are by definition less than 12 before the calendar year.  Let me add - my son is now U13.  I just witnessed first hand the frenzy that occurs when kids go from U11 to U12 - to get into DA.  There is a palpable sense of accomplishment in the families and kids that make it - and - and equal sense of disappointment in those that do not make it.  Many more do not make that make it.  This is the exponentially negative effect.  It is important to understand that most mature soccer natioins still have kids playing on 1/2 size fields at U13 - academy entrance is at U14 - when boys are well into puberty.   

  8. Kent James, July 25, 2018 at 9:18 a.m.

    Yep, he nailed it.  No need to panic, but we do need to work on the problems Payne highlighted.  Get as many kids to play, as often as they want, as inexpensively as possible, and for as long as we can.  Then we'll have a good pool from which to draw the most talented kids as they get older....

  9. Dan Woog, July 25, 2018 at 9:39 a.m.

    Great comments, particularly regarding the false sense of expectations. Soccer is a fun game to play; that's why kids love it. Adding on layers of false expectations at a young age -- about what players "should" want when they're 16, 18 or 20 -- turns a game into a job.

  10. Pat Millen, July 25, 2018 at 10:06 a.m.

    As parents we spend a lot of time caring for our children.  We work hard to best provide for them security, home, food, clothes, education, healthcare, etc.  In the end, most parents just want to have good, well-adjusted kids that work hard, care for others, act responsibly and are for the most part happy.  For parents, there's not much that we won't do to try to supply these things to the best of our abilities.  And yet, with American youth soccer, sometime around the age of 11 or 12 we turn their entire self-esteem process over to a bunch of European expatriates who train them to dribble around cones...and then criticize their ability to do it to these coaches' professional standards.  This would be sort of like your 6th grade Art Teacher yelling at your kid because she didn't color within the lines.  Youth soccer needs to be more fun.  The regimental 5 day/week cone dribbling academy is a job...and, I'm told, a lousy one.  Furthermore, if a kid advances up the ladder due to his relative talent, he then is told that he's got to be all-in if he's going to succeed at the next level, which at this point is at least college soccer...or better yet a paid college soccer scholarship...or better still a professional soccer career...or even the national team.  Anything short of "all-in" means to these coaches with brogues that if he doesn't become the next college, pro or national team star, it was because he didn't commit enough to his own prospects.  The clubs that I know well have coaches that could tell you in great deal how this kid or that kid didn't pan out because of some flaw on the kid's part.  This is all, of course, $25,000 to the Club later...

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, July 25, 2018 at 11:48 a.m.

    Either you are exagerating or else you are out of touch with the life of a 12 year old. You make them sound like Kindergarten students practicing manual dexterity. 

    While I am certain that there are bad programs and coaches, I am also confident that there are many good programs and coaches. If a parent sees unhappy children in a negative and hostile learning environment and still registers his child, then I blame the parent for making a bad choice.  

  12. humble 1 replied, July 26, 2018 at 10:40 a.m.

    Actually Bob, this is a rather apt description of what I observe at the front lines with my boy.  Especailly the cones part, I actually chuckled, on that.  Generally speaking from what I see, kids that develop into soccer players here do so in spite of the clubs, not because of them.  There are great clubs and coaches, cannot question this, but they are the exceptions.  

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, July 27, 2018 at 2:18 p.m.

    Why do you register your son with a club with a negative learning environment and bad coaching?

  14. Todd Farber, July 25, 2018 at 10:17 a.m.

    Amen Kevin Payne.  Couldn't have said any better myself.

  15. s fatschel, July 25, 2018 at 10:39 a.m.

    US Club has it's problems as well....tournamentitis.  3 nights hotel, 7 hour drive, 100 degree heat and last game Sunday at 6 pm. 

  16. Bob Ashpole, July 25, 2018 at 11:52 a.m.

    Yet another great interview, Mike. Excellent.

  17. Soccer Bloke, July 25, 2018 at 11:56 a.m.

    Meanwhile US Club has been the vehicle for for-proft teams that exploit parents' ignorance and run u10 teams, creaming the best classic players, travalling long distances and chasing trophies, to join leagues where no standards are applied.

    J'accuse MR. Payne.

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, July 25, 2018 at 5:19 p.m.

    US Club Soccer may be criticized for many things, but not for failure to set standards. They were a leader in establishing minimum standards for clubs to meet. 

  19. s fatschel replied, July 25, 2018 at 7 p.m.

    The DA is the only organization with minimum starts, tracking playing time, practice to game ratios, consistent style of play, licensing, etc and yearly evaluations that hold clubs accountable.  Another example only 2 tournaments per year and DA teams only allowed 3 games in 4 days.  I am shocked still to see other youth tournaments with 4 games in 36 hours! We have a non DA USL academy that did 10 tournaments in one year. Like the wild west.

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, July 27, 2018 at 2:30 p.m.

    US Club Soccer had standards before there was a DA. Here is a 2012 copy of their club standards. If you are trying to distinguish the DA because of specific language in the USSF requirements for the DA, you are making meaningless distinctions. US Club Soccer generally requires clubs to be consistent with USSF recommendations.

    Please note that USSF's DA includes only specific ages and levels of competition. US Club Soccer standards apply to all ages and levels of play. It is unrealistic to expect them to give specific training requirements for everyone.

  21. s fatschel replied, July 31, 2018 at 6:18 p.m.

    BA do you have a link to US Club player minimum starts and yearly team evaluations?  If not the standards are meaningless. Some of my kids did US Club and it was the wild west. Nothing even close to the DA.

  22. Eugene Chang, July 25, 2018 at 12:12 p.m.

    Shouldn't this statement be causing alarm bells to go off?


    The registration numbers have been almost completely flat for years.

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, July 25, 2018 at 5:16 p.m.

    Only a minority of players are affiliated with USSF. Not just unorganized play. Scholastic, church, community and youth clubs like the YMCA have organized programs but are not affiliated with USSF. 

  24. Ric Fonseca replied, July 25, 2018 at 10:51 p.m.

    E. Chang:  When I took my first statistics class as a senior in high school, and then a more detailed stat course in college, one of the first things we were taught is that you can do anything, and I mean anything with statistics, as Kevin Payne above has pointed out. What struck me most is that the group thatg did the study sound like those outfits that are commissioned by an opposing group, in other words, a sporting group that opposes our sport, much in the same fashion when - back in the late 60's and into the '70's - when high schools and colleges were beginning to have soccer as another sport from which to choose, it was the old football coaches, AD's and in essence non-soccer people that did everything and anything to not offer the sport, or even in the regular "parks and recreation departments" of our cities, one didn't see many new parks with soccer fields, why, because while football cleats tore up the fields, the rationale then was that having soccer played on natural turf, would tear up the field thereby making it unplayable.  
    I for one, am very pleased with K. Payne's initial assessment, jeepers, he's been around anough to see right through the "study" and he nailed it in his very wide and open paragraph.  Gracias Mike for sharing his thoughts, now if only US Soccer would also comment on it, wouldn't that be a rip-roariing gas?!?!?"

  25. frank schoon, July 25, 2018 at 2:13 p.m.

    These problems will continue as long we have not established a real soccer subculture where kids at all ages come together and play pickup soccer as Pogba mentioned. But as long as the only game in town  is relying and sucking on the teat of the pay for play system , don’t expect improvement .We will continue having burned out kids, that have been run through the mill and never really having learned to love the game. All those kids Pogba played with everyday came out to play because they love the game and regardless if they elect to join a club or not they knew there is always pick up games to join in on.  

  26. James Madison, July 25, 2018 at 9:32 p.m.

    A veryt houghtful interview.  Too much too soon increases the likelihood of early burnout.  Valuing  development of a love of soccer over competition is key to long term participation.

  27. Al Micucci, July 26, 2018 at 8:38 a.m.

    For crying out loud.  On Long Island they have kids playing travel soccer at 7.  No one is looking after the kids.  It's a money grab.  Everyone is worried about thier organization keeping their share of the "market"  I had been on the Board of (at one time) one of the largest youth soccer clubs on Long Island.  We now have 3 year olds in an organized soccer setting.  What's next, pregnant mom's?  Year round soccer was supposed to catch us up with the rst of the world.  That has not worked out yet.  Kids that have never played baseball or softball have trouble tracking headers because they have never learned to track a fly ball.  Kids who have never played basketball or hockey have never learned how to move in close spaces to free themselves fom defenders.  In the very recent past one young man who started in our club has signed a pro soccer contract.  He is an exceptional multi sport athlete with great god givem talents (also exception genes from both Mom & Dad!)  That is 1 pro contract from a large club with 40 years of history.  That is how many tens of thousands of children?  Sorry for the rant but I have coached and admistrated in this sport for almost 30 years.  My opinion is this problem comes from the top.  US Soccer has permitted so many organizations to proliferate that the competition for the athlete (read child) has become intense and is doing more harm than good.  There are seemingly no rules anymore.  Again, i apologize for the rant.  I'm a former baseball guy, as I have been called many times, who became a passionate fan ofthe beautiful game, but not at the expense of the children.

  28. R2 Dad replied, July 26, 2018 at 11:59 a.m.

    Everything is fine, just fine. /S

  29. Tim Schum, July 30, 2018 at 11:17 a.m.

    I'd like to focus on the role US Soccer has historically played in the development of the game.

    Unfortunately until the organization put some real money in its coffers due to the '94 WC coming to our shores, it was bascially a Mom & Pop operation. To read and record the history of USSF's  organization of our country's national team efforts up to the 80s is comical. BbeBetween the   


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