Lynn Berling-Manuel: Declining numbers of young players is a trend that must be reversed

Lynn Berling-Manuel is the Chief Executive Officer of United Soccer Coaches, formerly known as the NSCAA, founded in 1941, and famous as being the largest organization of soccer coaches in the world. We checked in with Berling-Manuel in the wake of reports of declining participation in American youth soccer. Berling-Manuel had previously served as AYSO Chief Marketing Officer for eight years.

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.

22 comments about "Lynn Berling-Manuel: Declining numbers of young players is a trend that must be reversed".
  1. R2 Dad, July 25, 2018 at 6:32 p.m.

    I've done 3 minutes of research and have serious reservations about the report evryone is fretting over.  I think eveyrone can agree that the growth in the sport has been driven recently by hispanics, yet the there is no mention of a version of the report in Spanish, or whether immigrant communities are included in the study. I'm calling BS on their conclusions.

    In soccer, there has been a rediculous explosion in the price of gear (who pays $150 for a pair of youth soccer cleats?) What do immigrant communities do in response? They buy their stuff in their country of origin and schlep it home with them or mail it. In the same way non-registered immigrants are playing under the radar, they are also buying under the radar so maybe this report is not seeing all the activity.

    I ran across this on their site regarding 2018:
    "Baseball (12.9%), Basketball (14.1%), Field Hockey (15.9%) and Soccer (Indoor)(13.2%) all saw significant one year increases in casual participation."

    ...which seems to run counter to their narrative of declining participation.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, July 25, 2018 at 11:13 p.m.

    R2D2 DAD:  Thanks, as I agree with you.  As I said in another post (Kevin Payne's version) anyone can conduct a survey and do whatever one wants with it, and statistics falls in this vein. As for Latinos buying their $150.oo pair of boots, unless you're in the sports/soccer related industry, yes R2Dad, yes you'd be suprised just how many kids and adults shell out the big bucks say for a pair of CR7 or Messi shoes!  Do you really think lots of Latino kids do buy their unis in Mexico?  Come on now, when Nike, or Adidas, or Puma or Joma brands sell jerseys and shorts, shoes, GK gloves, only and unless you live on the border will you get the "real deal," as most of the time you're getting a knock-off and NOT a "real/original" item.
    "Non-registered immigrants?"  What the hell you mean, they're not affiliating with US Youth or US Soccer?!?!?! SHOCKING!!!  Hell, this has been going on for decades, so it ain't nothing new, 'cause I served some seven years as a Commissioner within the old CYSA-S, and lordy-Lord, we/I tried to get them to affiliate (the Latino youth leagues, clubs, teams) and even then in the late '70s ayso tried very feebly, I might add, to break into the Latino communities with very little success.
    OK, so then that outfit and it's "schocking" study and their fancy organizational name, it sorta reminds me of another SA author who write and write because of a slow day in futbol soccer. And it begs to wonder who ordered the study? Heck, I could go on and on, but I gotta go 

  3. R2 Dad replied, July 26, 2018 at 12:12 p.m.

    Ric, we regularly got Chivas-sponsored uniforms at deep discount that were shipped from Mexico. Yes, the cleats were probably knock-offs. I also notice that Nike, the 800 lb gorilla, was not present on the board of the association that did the report. Incomplete info?

  4. Mike Lynch, July 26, 2018 at 9:40 a.m.

    Mike , Another insightful article - good questions, solid responses. Rarely are there simple solutions to complex issues. Sport participation numbers is a complex issue for all sports, especially soccer. It may help to look for solutions under buckets such as youth rec, select local club, elite club, high school, young adult rec (16-20 or 22), college, older adult rec (20 or 22 thru masters), pro, fan only, etc. then batch together several different solution groups where some groups may be in several groups. Regardless, all must be addressed, not just the pro/national team as Lynn eluded to. 

  5. Wallace Wade, July 26, 2018 at 9:58 a.m.

    What does Mr. Cordeiro have to say about this topic?

  6. frank schoon replied, July 26, 2018 at 10:08 a.m.

    He has been out to lunch since he got his new job....

  7. s fatschel, July 26, 2018 at 10:47 a.m.

    I can't help but wonder if consumers (parents) are to blame for not saying no to the rising cost of soccer and thinking their kid is going pro. USA is sports crazy.  Maybe we need a tougher system which tells kids honestly what therir chances at age 16 (for 99.99 percent it is zero). This is what happenes in Europe not only for soccer but for college vs trade school.

  8. Wooden Ships, July 26, 2018 at 12:02 p.m.

    Fun, access, affordability are all necessary, disagree with going back to school year. The sky isn’t falling on participation, certainly not to the level where we need to bring out the “dogs and ponies” and pimp our sport like we did in the MISL days.

  9. Dick Burns, July 26, 2018 at 1:12 p.m.

    Personal observation - kids are to busy playing with their video games to be outside.  I just don't see them out kicking a ball around in pickup games. Everything must  be organized by adults. In many ways we have taken the fun out of the game.

  10. Allan Evans, July 26, 2018 at 4:28 p.m.

    I agree that the birth year adjustment was not for the good of the many. The younger kids are often more concerned with the experience—playing with friends and classmates—and not looking for the elite programs. 

    From my experience, the popularity of lacrosse has had more to do with our declining numbers than anything else. The programs have gotten huge in the last 5 or so years. More so than other sports, lacrosse has taken kids from soccer. I even lost my own son to lacrosse. He’s happy with his choice, so I’m okay with it. 

  11. uffe gustafsson, July 26, 2018 at 5:51 p.m.

    i think we had this discussion before, but I coach club as well HS. Club soccer is not affordable to many kids, but HS is an outlet for many kids to get to play again.
    i have so many kids coming back after a few early years of club soccer to play in HS. $50 is the HS fee and we provide the shirt and shorts. 
    Club soccer you pay $1400 and up plus you buy uniforms every two years and then a team fee that at times are hundreds of $ every year.
    i really enjoy the HS those young ladies are so happy to play again, our HS is not one of those schools you come too to play soccer but to have fun playing and learn the game again. Nothing make me happier then see from day one barely able to strike a ball but at end of season actually make moves and can strike a good shoot as well can make a great pass.
    club soccer got way to intense of winning at all cost.
    and parents that think they have to find the top club for the kid. It been taking the fun out of the experience when it’s all about winning and ranking.

  12. uffe gustafsson, July 26, 2018 at 6:07 p.m.

    One more comment on club soccer.
    its been a suburban sport with wealthy families.
    my daughters team had to pay for a practice shirt not just a thirt but a fancy one, and then a warmup shirt before the game and then change to the game shirt.
    really they need all those shirts to play.
    its like a proffetional team. 

  13. s fatschel, July 27, 2018 at 9:11 a.m.

    Maybe more drastic steps needed such as eliminating college athletic scholarships and even the draft. This is driving many parents to pay high cost of youth soccer. With USL-D3 coming those who truly have a chance at making a living as a pro would take that path.

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, July 27, 2018 at 3:44 p.m.

    s.fatschel:  WHAT, says your suggestion to "eliminate college athletic scholarships,"???  Do you realize the folly of your suggestion?  Mi amigo, collegiate athletic scholarships are akin to apple pie, but the only way to do away with them, at least in soccer, is for you to read why the University of New Mexico has/will do to get rid of its athletic scholarships, and no, amigo, they're doing it to men's soccer,(no mention if this also includes women's soccer)  leaving the almighty "three pillars of (US) American sports of baseball, football, and basketball - plus several tohers.  Soi, nawww, nope, and no way, don't elminiate athletic scholarships, 'sides, the colleges and universities would then have to place the coaches in the classroom, or give them a nice severance chack, and the student-scholarship athletes would be left out in the cold, with nary a team - amateur, semi pro or rec - to sign them so they can continue to gain experience and hone their skills!   

  15. s fatschel replied, July 27, 2018 at 4:07 p.m.

    Ric you do realize D3 already offers no athletic scholarships as well as Ivy league D1?  

  16. Ric Fonseca replied, July 28, 2018 at 11:11 p.m.

    s fatschel:  As a former college/university coach, yes I was very quickly educated about the three NCAA Divisions of athletics, and DIII's are usually a smaller liberal arts college/university, they do not offer athletic scholarships, e.g. Occidental College in the LA County area, usually has an excellent intercollegiate program, and in danger of getting into trouble here, its teams, whether futbol-soccer, football or even basketball and baseball, are but just a couple notches up and above a top high school interscholastic athletic program.  And, the entrance freshman admission requirements are usually a tougher nut to crack, than say a DI or II program.  On the other hand, someone will probably say, why don't players go and try out and play for a junionr/community college program?  Well pilgrim, while California is not a member of the National Junior and Community Athletic Association (NJCAA) and comprised of some 120 community colleges, only a few do actually go out and recruit players, usually those who did not meet entrance (i.e. grade and SAT/ACT) requirments to a four-year D I or II.  And so to those DI, II and III, coaches tell the players to enroll in abc, or xyz community college for two years and then transfer?  Hell no they don't. There's a helluva lot more to this than meets the eye, amigo. 

  17. Philip Carragher, July 27, 2018 at 1:35 p.m.

    In my community the kids all want to do what their friends are doing, and their friends want to do what their older siblings did, so youth soccer in my area (white collar suburbs) had kids following the pack. I'm not sure about the young ones in my area needing expensive shoes, but I love what Northwestern U's head coach told players who showed up for his elite camp (tryouts for the college team): if you're going to wear fancy boots, you better score plenty, otherwise wear black boots and work hard. And the players at NU frowned on recruits who showed up for early season practice in brightly colored boots. I think if we're to help kids get away from expensive soccer, the soccer community needs to change but how do you change families from being the consumers they've been well-trained to be? We need the community to support player development not consumerism. So it all gets back to some basics. How do coaches and organizations define success? My coaching measurement was: do the kids show up for practice and do they sign up again the following season? My teams always showed and signed up again except in some rare instances. The fastest way to get kids to quit a sport is to either yell at them or laugh at them. Both are express lanes to exiting a sport. Parents were told to only cheer, never instruct the players and nothing negative to anyone, especially players and referees. And the players were taught to control the game themselves, use on-the-field communication to tie the play together and help instigate a flowing style. This way I can shut up and let them play their game. And for those who say kids can't play a passing game...BS. I had first graders playing a fairly intelligent passing game (3-7 passes) and by third grade this same group would string together 8-15 passes at a crack. And somehow, magically, we'd score and win most games. So positive coaching and sport-parenting combined with a belief and system that helps these kids to get into game-flow asap. It can be done. I also taught them how to watch great soccer via "soccer play dates". They'd all take the school bus home to my house, eat chicken nuggets, and watch Messi or some other great do their thing and I'd wait to see what inspired them. We watched Barcelona and one kid got fired-up to learn how to back heel. I had third graders on the field that weekend back heeling to each other. But this has to be done as a group because if you have only one kid doing it he'll (or she'll) do it and no one will be ready for it and since it doesn't succeed that player will stop doing it. My own kid was passing backwards in kindergarten but none of the other players could handle it so he quit doing it. The problem with player development here in the US can be solved and the basic building block, having all players learn how to get into game-flow, can easily be taught to players and inexperienced coaches alike, but it needs a village.

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

    If you are the head of a national organization, then I guess you have to be worried with declining numbers. From the individual's POV it doesn't matter much. All the individual player cares about is whether he can find a pickup game and a club to play with. I am sure there is still a shortage of qualified coaches and officials.

    People who love playing the game are going to play regardless of what "casual" participants are going to do.

  19. s fatschel replied, July 27, 2018 at 4:46 p.m.

    BA I hear you but there are two camps. Those who just want to play and fans who constantly complain about soccer in MLS and USMNT.  For that second group you need growth and lots of players in the pipeline.  To realize that soccer needs to have more participation than basketball and baseball.  That's why we need a dual pathway.

  20. s fatschel replied, July 27, 2018 at 5:41 p.m.

    As an example the amateur pathway would be school year based ( HS, club, ODP, college). The pro pathway would be birth year ( DA, USL3, USL2, MLS) to mirror the rest of the world.

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, July 27, 2018 at 11:53 p.m.

    HS, club, and college programs are not equivilent. Same with DA clubs. There is wide variation. Most of the boys DA is amateur soccer looking to develop amateur players. Out of about 150 DA clubs only about 20 are MLS youth academies looking to develop professional players.

    Ideally you don't want to place barriers inhibiting the best players from moving up the pyramid to higher level programs. Therefore, I believe the "dual pathway" (identification and separation of "elite" players at very young ages) is a major flaw in our system, as is separation into 1 year age brackets, especially for U12 and below. There is no player development purpose served by segregating players by age. It's sole purpose is to support team competitions, as is the formal team/league structures. I believe that the focus on training teams for competitions before the teen years is also a major flaw in player development.  

  22. s fatschel replied, July 28, 2018 at 8:29 a.m.

    There are many possibilities such as DA and ODP teams in the same league for cross over. Or non MLS DA into the amatuer path. The key decision is at 18 to go D3 pro and forfeit college soccer eligibility. 

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications