SOCCER AMERICA: What’s your opinion on the accuracy the youth soccer participation numbers cited in the New York Times article headlined, "Youth Soccer Participation Has Fallen Significantly in America"?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: It’s not an opinion, it is a fact. The Sports Fitness Industry Association (formerly the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association) participation survey is the gold standard. It has been done year over year across 120 sports and activities for over three decades.
I may have quibbled over absolute numbers in that time, but never over the trends. It is not tied to any organization or location but our sport overall.
SA: Do you believe there is indeed a problem with fewer children playing soccer?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: I hope we all agree that declining numbers of young players is a trend that must be reversed.
SA: What changes would you recommend for American youth soccer to decease the dropout rate of young players and increase participation?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: Repeal the birth-year mandate for U-12 soccer or at least recreational programs. It models the club structure of much of the rest of the world, but the social structure in the U.S. is school-based.
In the early years of soccer, playing with your friends -- who you know through school -- is part of what makes soccer fun. It also supports family scheduling, carpools and the infrastructure that makes it all work.
We need to celebrate community-based, low-cost, parent-involved soccer programs. Make it less about “getting to the next level” and more about learning the game, having fun, friendships, and a healthy, safe activity. Having a vibrant, accessible rec program should be a goal for every youth club and community program.
SA: What’s your view on U.S. Soccer’s role?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: As the National Governing Body, U.S. Soccer must be a leader here. They must support multiple soccer pathways and put real resources behind them.
Supporting the elite 1 percent and a winning national team is important, but it seems we’ve made everyone else feel “less than.”
We’re excited about a World Cup coming, but if lots of new families “sample” our sport because of it and find the experience wanting, we will have missed such an important opportunity.
Pathways such as a vibrant high school and college level opens up opportunities for thousands of players. Intramural college soccer programs are packed because kids want to come back and play … there just aren’t the easy opportunities for them to do that. Adult soccer keeps players engaged and runs the gamut from first-timers to former pros.
Let’s reframe the conversation from player development to cultural development. We’d like to redefine “preeminent” in the U.S. Soccer mission statement “to make soccer the preeminent sport in the United States” to: ensure that every player falls in love with soccer. And that “fun” is defined by a player at any age or level saying, “I want to do it again.”
That makes for lifelong fans, supporters and influencers of our game.