He didn't just wander into these powerful positions from the operating room. He earned a scholarship for the powerhouse University of San Francisco in the mid-70s before moving to UC Davis, where he was won the school's scholar-athlete award in 1980. He has a U.S. Soccer A license, a couple of decades of youth and high school coaching experience, several years of experience as a club and league president and nearly a decade as chair of Cal North's youth association.
SOCCER AMERICA: Has anything in the (U.S. Youth Soccer) job surprised you so far?
PETE ZOPFI: I think I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the problems and some of the approaches to solving those problems are very similar no matter what region or what area of the country you’re in. Some of the problems we thought were unique to (Cal North) are unique to everybody.
I'll use examples such as players playing where they want to play, not necessarily playing in a certain state or playing a certain region. I've been pleasantly surprised that all the different states want the players to have that freedom of play, but they also want to be supportive of their registration system, their development, some of the resources they need, especially when they're younger grassroots players. That’s been the surprise. I didn’t realize the problems were as common in all four regions as they are.
SA: Since you've come in, one major development was that U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro called for a task force -- which wasn't a surprise, it was what we expected him to do and what he said he was going to do. What do you see from that task force so far?
ZOPFI: We’ve had an opportunity to have an introductory phone conversation, which was nice. Everybody got to know who the players were by name and what the general focus of the task force was, which is to try and define problems in youth soccer and develop solutions to address those. Then we actually had an in-person meeting down in Tampa. Four of the five of us (youth organization representatives) were able to attend, and Carlos (Cordeiro, USSF President), Dan (Flynn, USSF CEO), Brian Remedi (USSF chief stakeholders officer) and Caitlin Carducci (USSF manager of member programs) were all there.
It was a very positive meeting. I had a general sense of collaboration among the organizations. We talked about the obvious problems that are out there -- risk management, the cost to play, coaching education, referee education -- all the general topics that anyone would come up with. It was nice to hear the perspective of all the different organizations.
U.S. Youth Soccer is a collaboration of competitive and rec and Top Soccer -- we've kind of got a little bit of everything. U.S. Club Soccer tends to be a little bit more on the competitive edge. AYSO and USSSA tend to be more grassroots and recreational. It was nice to hear the perspective on risk management -- how can we collaborate and do something more national for things like screening and concussion protocols.
For an initial meeting, I think everybody left the meeting feeling a sense of collaboration and appreciation that all of us have a common goal that is actually something I trumpeted for a while, which is the decrease of fragmentation of youth soccer. I think everybody recognizes that we're all broken apart and wasting a lot of resources -- financial, mental, emotional, etc. -- competing, when realistically, if we could work together, I think we could probably produce a better product for the kids.
To summarize it, I would say I came away with a lot of optimism.
Pete Zopfi started his college career at the University of San Francisco, where he was the backup keeper on its 1975 NCAA Division I NCAA championship team. He transferred to UC Davis to pursue his medical career, and played three years for the Aggies and served as captain. Zopfi, who went on to get the USSF A coaching license and coach youth club and high school ball, ran soccer camps in Napa and played on a coed team with his wife, Kim, after he finished his surgical residency.
SA: Some of these people from these other organizations have been in place for a very long time. Did you find other people were curious to know about you -- perhaps they hadn't encountered you on a national level before?
ZOPFI: Obviously, I’m new at the national level. Whether that’s a breath of fresh air and some new ideas, or they're just not sure of me yet -- the jury’s still out from their perspective. Overall, I think they gained an appreciation for why I’m doing what I’m doing -- trying to grow the game, make it better, decrease the fragmentation. It played into the purpose of the task force. So, I think they appreciated that. As they got to know me, I sensed that they felt a little more comfortable with what I was bringing to the table. I think that was good.
SA: Is it too soon to talk with other organizations about specific areas of competition, say, in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, EDP flipped from U.S. Club in its top level to being the U.S. Youth regional league, and then U.S. Club came back and formed its own (league). Have you guys talked about how to reconcile competing leagues or what would be fair play between them?
ZOPFI: I think it is a little too soon, but not that much. Our next step is to define those workgroups in the various areas and start putting members together in those workgroups. I think once those workgroups are established, that’s when those conversations that you're suggesting are going to occur.
A lot of the leadership in that leadership council want to get to those conversations, but they also realize the process is important to follow. And that is those workgroups, populating them with the right people that have decent conversations. If leaders alone have conversations about working together, you can come up with some really good plans, but when you take it to the membership, they don't work really well because you didn't get insider input from them. So, I think that's going to be an important part of having those conversations -- have input from competitive coaches, grassroots coaches, referees, club administrators, state administrators. Once we get that, those conversations are probably going to take off pretty quickly.
SA: You mentioned forming workgroups. One of the questions that came up with the task force -- the initial thought was that it wasn't particularly diverse, that it was mostly white male. Have there been any talks about making diversity a priority as you form these workgroups?
ZOPFI: Absolutely. It’s interesting you say that because when we met in Tampa, one of the first comments I made in looking around the table was the lack of diversity there. As you stated, it was a bunch of white males. It was more by default than by intent. Currently, the leadership in these various groups happen to be white males other than Chris Moore, who is our CEO. Chris and I talked about who we wanted to represent (U.S. Youth Soccer), and we decided I would be the best at this point.
My intent is from our side to make sure we populate those workgroups with a diverse group of people. If we don’t get that diversity, we’re not representing youth soccer as it exists today, which is extremely diverse in all areas of the country. I know some of the things we’re doing internally with U.S. Youth is forming some organizational growth groups that involve all four regions and are very diverse -- males, females, all different ethnicities and races. We've found that extremely important for us.
SA: That leads me to what's going on within U.S. Youth Soccer since you've taken office, aside from the task force. What areas have really revved up most quickly since you've come into office?
ZOPFI: The biggest thing we have going right now is we’ve completed our (20)18-19 budget, and we're looking to get that approved. But in response to the membership -- and I think it was a good request -- we're trying to be very punctual with next year's budget. We’re actually hoping in January we’ll be able to present the 19-20 budget to the membership. Which is a big step forward. We've made a special point to try to get this put out in a very timely manner.
We have a fee proposal in the budget and an organizational growth plan that's been presented to our membership at the end of October that we will discuss and hopefully act upon in January at a special meeting during our convention.
We’re trying to be more timely and more transparent than we’ve been in the past. Everyone always says that, but I think we're actually acting and able to accomplish that. That's due in large part to the board being committed to it, and Chris Moore and his operational staff being committed to it also.
SA: If you go ahead and put the (20)19-20 budget out early, would that include enough flexibility that if you have interesting programs that we want to try to start, you would be able to do so?
ZOPFI: Absolutely. I think one of the fallacies in budget-making -- a lot of organizations, not just in soccer, fall into the trap of thinking this is the budget, and I've gotta live and die by it, so I've got to make sure it's as perfect as possible before I put it out there. But really, a budget’s a draft. If you don't allow or build in some flexibility for that, then as you suggest -- if you come up with a good idea or a good program that needs some financial support, you'd have to say, "Well, even though it's a great program, we really can't do it right now because we don't have it in the budget" -- I'd think that's a big mistake. Life happens too fast now, especially with social media and all the technology development that's occurring. If you build a budget that’s very stagnant and not able to be flexible and adjust on a monthly if not quarterly basis, I think you're going to fall behind other organizations.
That’s what’s behind the 19-20 budget. We're going to put it out there -- and yeah, it's going to be less in concrete than budgets in the past -- but it's going to have some areas in which people go, "Hey, we could do this with the National Championship Series or we could do this with ODP or elite players, or we've got this $200,000 or whatever budgeted to develop organizational growth." I think that's an important step forward.
SA: You mentioned ODP, and that's something that came up in the (2018 USSF presidential) election. Former players had fond memories of ODP helping them along. It's a program that, at least the perception is, has fallen on hard times because there's so much competition in the marketplace and so many people going into Development Academy or ECNL programs where they're probably not doing ODP. What are you thinking its role may be in the future?
ZOPFI: I think it may end up having the same role it's had in the past. It may just have to be defined in a different way. What I mean by that: There’s a lot of kids out there who can’t go to Development Academies or aren’t living in an urban area where they can get that sort of big-club support or be identified. Those kids -- one of the avenues that can continue to be an opportunity for them to be identified is an ODP program, whether it’s called ODP or evolves into something different.
I think there still is a group of players out there that aren't going to be identified by the DA, and they aren't going to be identified as members of big clubs. They're going to be discovered one way or the other. I think it’s just one more process.
The other side of that: It’s not just to find players for the national team, but it's also giving these kids the opportunity to be identified for maybe playing in college, giving them that kind of incentive to even try to play in college, let alone if they're fortunate enough to get some kind of financial assistance.
So I think there's a role for an ODP program in the future. I'm not sure if it's going to be called ODP, and that's one of the things I could see our group in U.S. Youth taking a good hard look at and seeing how they want to evolve and mature that.
SA: What's a broad-view agenda for next six months or the end of the program year -- June, July, when you have the championships?
ZOPFI: A couple of areas for me that I think are important -- the task force needs to continue on this timely pace that Carlos is pushing us. It's important that task force continues and those workgroups be formed, and then some things come out of those workgroups that are put in place by the middle of next year, where we're starting to see some sort of progress and some sort of metrics we can measure.
From the U.S. Youth side, I think it’s important for us to get the budgetary support that we're hoping for in January. I think it's important for us, by the middle of next year, to actually have some programs and some organizational growth projects in place.
The third thing and probably the most important for me personally -- I’d like to see the fragmentation between the different groups really start to go away. It doesn't mean the five of us are going to join hands and circle around and say we're one big happy family. But even if a few of us can get together and do some positive things in the next 6-9 months, that would be a huge step forward. That would put us in a different direction than we've been going for several years.
SA: So, when you say fragmentation would start to go away, would that be more along the lines of perhaps having a national risk management policy? Or where we have leagues that have split apart, would we see leagues start to come back together?
ZOPFI: Those are two really good examples. The registration system that’s out there -- there’s like a million different vendors and it’s hard to have good data on all of the kids. I know U.S. Soccer itself is working really hard to have a single data bank.
And competition, too. You see the different organizations have their crown jewel. Maybe this is just a dream, but it might be nice to actually have a true national championship where all of the best teams come together and compete to see who is the best U-17 girls or U-14 boys.
(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)