Commentary

U.S. Youth Soccer's Pete Zopfi on adding Latinos to Youth Task Force and the federation's 'growing pains'

Last August, Pete Zopfi was elected Chair of U.S. Youth Soccer, whose 2.7 million players represent 74% of the youth players registered under the U.S. Soccer Federation's umbrella. As the U.S. Youth Chair, Zopfi became a member of U.S. Soccer's Board of Directors, and a member of U.S. Soccer's Youth Task Force, which was launched in October of 2018 with nine members and also included the leaders of U.S. Club Soccer, AYSO, SAY Soccer and USSSA. The Task Force created six working groups to bring the number of people involved to 59. We spoke with Zopfi shortly after Soccer America reported on the Task Force's lack of Latinos.

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SOCCER AMERICA: Did you read Soccer America's article, “Latinos shunned by U.S. Soccer Youth Task Force.”?

PETE ZOPFI: I did. Thank you for bringing that forward. I know it came across as pretty heavy, but sometimes you have to do that. So I think that was good. I can’t speak for U.S. Soccer, but I can speak for us [U.S. Youth Soccer]. It was definitely an unintentional oversight on our part. That doesn’t excuse it.

I know the way it was received. I was in the U.S. Soccer Board meeting at the time. The reaction was: We really should have thought more about that. I know a number of the Task Force working groups are now working to include Hispanic members. I got a recommendation from New York. He’s a detective and a volunteer soccer coach, and represents the grassroots, too. So I think he’s going to be a nice addition to our Risk Management/SafeSport working group, which is the group I oversee.

I saw your article on Landon Donovan, too, and I thought that was very good, also. It kind of struck home, because being from Northern California, I grew up in the North Bay Latin leagues. I was the token gringo and learned and cut my teeth on Latin and Hispanic soccer. So I know what that means.

SA: How were the Working Group members chosen?

PETE ZOPFI: As U.S. Youth’s Chair, I sent to all 55 state presidents and executive directors a letter requesting them to nominate or recommend anyone who they thought would be good for any of the six Working Groups. Of course, I did outline to them that the time commitment was going to be about 15 to 20 hours a month and that we were expecting it to be a 12-month, if not longer, period of time. But that most of it would be phone conferences. Some would be in person.

I had a really good response from the presidents and EDs [executive directors]. I had about 60 recommendations for all six groups total, and it was quite a diverse group. I’m going to say we probably had seven or eight Latinos in there. Probably 16 or 17 women. A couple Middle Eastern gentlemen and a couple of African-Americans, which was below what I was hoping for. That’s one of our areas of weakness, in addition to the Hispanic population.

[Editor's note: Each of the other youth organization leaders also submitted a list of candidates for the Working Groups.]

SA: What was the next step after the passing on the list of candidates?

PETE ZOPFI: That was submitted to U.S. Soccer, and the Leadership Council looked at the list in general. I’m a member of that Leadership Council, of course, as one of the representatives of the [youth] groups. And then it was pretty much left to the U.S. Soccer support staff, and that involves all the main senior managers of that group, to contact the various people on that list. We’d given them contact information.

And what we received back was the [finalized] list of the Working Groups.

SA: And when you saw the names on those six Working Groups?

PETE ZOPFI: To be honest, I was looking more to make sure they were equally representative of all the different organizations, because I was getting a lot of questions from our group, us being the largest, about whether we would be represented proportionally. I reassured my group that I wasn’t expecting U.S. Youth to have 75% of the representation. We’re just looking for everyone to have a voice at the table.

REGISTERED YOUTH PLAYERS IN THE USA
US Youth Soccer: 2,698,874 (73%)
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US Club Soccer: 475,467 (13%)
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AYSO: 385,115 (10%)
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SAY Soccer: 93,593 (3%)
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U.S. Soccer Development Academy: 20,592 (0.6%)
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USSSA: 6,315 (0.2%)
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TOTAL: 3,679,956
Source: U.S. Soccer 2019 Media Guide

In October of 2018, U.S. Soccer announced the creation of a nine-member Youth Task Force. Four from U.S. Soccer: Carlos Cordeiro, Dan Flynn, John Collins and Tim Turney. And the five leaders of youth organization: Pete Zopfi (U.S. Youth Soccer), Mike Cullina (U.S. Club Soccer), Doug Wood (SAY Soccer), Craig Scriven (USSSA) and Mike Hoyer (AYSO). Hoyer is no longer with AYSO but remains on the Task Force and chairs the Referee Working Group. With the creation of six Working Groups and U.S. Soccer staff support, the number of those involved with the Task Force reached 59.

PETE ZOPFI: The fact that we were actually sitting at the table with these other groups was a big step forward, because I don’t know if that’s happened in a while, or if ever. The fact that we were able to get the U.S. Youth Chair and the U.S. Club President in the same room talking about similar things and realizing that we’re a lot more alike than we are different, I thought that was big step forward. But that was just the beginning.

SA: These are organizations that are competing for the same players?

PETE ZOPFI: We are. And I think that's one of the biggest flaws in youth soccer in America. And that's why I've been trumpeting the "functional unification of youth soccer" in America. That's what I ran for. We really need to put youth soccer back together because right now we're spending more time competing for players, i.e., U.S. Youth competing with U.S. Club, vice-versa or AYSO -- instead of going out there and finding the kids who aren't playing.

One of the pilot programs I started a couple months ago -- and I started it with my board -- I call the plant-the-seed program. We have a nice relationship with Nike, so I asked them for a bunch of size 3 soccer balls. I challenged my board, my staff and executive directors: I'm going to give you a ball and I want you to find a kid who's never played soccer before. I want you to give them this ball, I want you to take a picture of them with the ball, and I want you to tell me their story.

And I'll be darned if my board and our staff at Frisco didn't get really creative. And I've probably got a dozen and a half great stories and pictures. In fact, some of them went out and bought 10 other balls so they could give them out to a whole team of players. So now I've passed that on.

It's not competing for players from the other organizations but competing for players who aren't soccer players yet. That's just a fun little pilot program, but it could be expanded. And it could be expanded by all the organizations.

SA: I think it's fair to say that since the creation of the Task Force nearly a year ago, members of the soccer community have not been informed about what it's been doing. And no one seemed to know who comprised the Working Groups. Shouldn't one of the goals of U.S. Soccer's Youth Task Force be to create a better connection between Chicago and the membership?

PETE ZOPFI: I'm not going to make an excuse for U.S. Soccer or for any of us, but I think there've been a couple of key events and key situations going on over the last six-plus months that I think has kind of taken the focus away from the Task Force. And obviously full support for the women, but in light of the atmosphere that was around them, I think we over-focused on that and we got away from the task Force a little bit.

So I think one, we slowed down in what we were charged to do. And two, we failed to communicate some of the things that we're doing or heading in that direction. I totally agree with you there hasn't been a lot out there. Greg Fike [U.S. Soccer staff attorney] and Lydia Wahlke [U.S. Soccer Chief Legal Officer] are my two support staff, so you can imagine how busy they've been recently. I feel little guilty, but I've been bugging them for the last couple of months, what about this, what about this? And I acknowledge that they were busy.

SA: There many coaching vacancies in the youth national team program. U.S. Soccer employees gave scathing reviews about the work environment in Chicago on the employment Web site Glassdoor. It sounds like federation is not equipped to handle all of its tasks?

PETE ZOPFI: The transition with (CEO) Dan Flynn leaving I think has been a real challenge. I think that has affected some of the hiring and the evolution of Soccer House. It's well publicized that Soccer House's physical environment is challenging. I think U.S. Soccer is becoming such a large organization and soccer itself as a sport is growing probably quicker than expected in America. I think we're going through growing pains and everybody's trying to keep up with the evolution and it's a challenge.

SA: Do you believe that when we start learning about the Task Force's work, there's going to be something to make people say, "Wow, that's a great change."

PETE ZOPFI: Yes. One example is from the Referee group that also relates to the Risk Management group. Referee registration is now going to require background checks. I personally think that's huge. For several years as we were implementing the background checks for coaches and administrators and assistant coaches, there was this one group that as kind of out there, and that was the referees. A lot people said, well, they don't really have opportunities to be alone with the kids. They don't have opportunities to abuse them. And I respectively disagree with that. One of the big things that took place is U.S. Soccer is now requiring the referees to go through background checks.

SA: As a coach, I had a background check done by both NorCal (U.S. Club Soccer) and Cal North (U.S. Youth), including getting fingerprinted for the Cal North check. When I renew my referee license for 2020, do I have undergo another background check? Of course, I don't mind getting background-checked whenever required, but couldn't one background check cover the all the organizations?

PETE ZOPFI: This is something I'm bringing back to my Risk Management group. And I said this at our first meeting, when it comes to background checks -- and of course you know up in Cal North we've been at kind of the forefront of all this stuff with the things we've been through -- what I suggested that should be an ultimate goal and focus, is that U.S. Soccer, our national organization, the big dog, should actually work out some sort of national background check that covers everybody.

If you're US Youth, US Club, AYSO, a referee -- there should be one background check that covers everybody and it should be standard. I know there's a little bit of a challenge to that because some states like California, Pennsylvania, have a little bit higher standards because some of the issues that have come up in our states. But I think a minimum national standard background check could be applied across the board. As a U.S. Club coach, you shouldn't have to do background that doesn't satisfy U.S. Youth and doesn't satisfy the referees. And that's something I think needs to happen rather sooner than later.

SA: In the past few years, U.S. Soccer has sent mandates, such as birth-year registration, and directives to the youth organizations that haven't been well received. I imagine that was one impetus for creating the Task Force?

PETE ZOPFI: I think that's a good point. I think from Carlos' perspective he inherited the PDIs [Player Development Initiatives] and some of the mandates. He was on the board, so it's not like he wasn't aware of them. But obviously in his position it was not something he was necessarily directing. And I think the PDIs are a good example. They came out and the communication about those and the involvement before they came out by the youth organizations -- it could have been better. I think with the Task Force, one of the goals Carlos had in mind was to get more involvement with the youth organizations before things like the PDIs and mandates come out.

So if there was going to be pushback -- and there obviously was a lot of pushback -- they would hear about it before becoming mandates and maybe they could be revised or maybe made easier for organizations to implement.

SA: One area in which U.S. Soccer has powerful influence is in the licensing of coaches. How does U.S. Youth Soccer handle coaching license requirements?

PETE ZOPFI: We don't direct that at the national level. We leave that more to the state levels. I think most of the state associations actually defer that to their clubs and leagues.

SA: Should the accessibility to higher level licenses (A, B and C), the possibility that U.S. Soccer's coaching education setup may be exclusionary, and the necessity for outreach to coaches outside the mainstream, elite clubs be a matter for the Task Force to address? It's my impression that that there are a significant number of Latino coaches at the grassroots level, but not at the higher levels. They hit a ceiling because getting high-level licenses requires high fees and travel costs, and significant time commitment, i.e., time off from work.

PETE ZOPFI: I think that's a great point. I compelled myself to go through that whole process. Even though I played in college and probably could have started maybe a D or even a C if I wanted, I started at the F because I wanted to get the experience. So I went through each level and got my A and ended up getting the goalkeeper license, too. But exactly as you described, I could see a barrier for other people. I could afford it and I could control my time to do it. You're right, there are a lot of good coaches out there who can't afford it, by time or money, or both, and they're being excluded. And there's probably a disparity based on ethnicity.

When I was at Cal North, we took advantage of the high-level Hispanic coaches. I had Carlos Menjivar as one of our state technical directors for a while. I met him through the licensing. Subsequently, we had Carlos Juarez -- who, in fact, I just spoke with -- and now he's down there in Arizona. I agree with you, there need to be more Carlos Menjivars and Carlos Juarezes out there. I'm sure it's a disproportionate small number because of just what you described. How do we change that?

There can be local-level support, but the national youth organizations need to be more proactive looking for coaches, offering scholarships and stuff. That's definitely an issue we should keep on the burner.

SA: Can you give us examples of any projects you've taken on since becoming U.S. Youth Soccer Chair in August 2018?

PETE ZOPFI: I put together a really good group about nine months ago, and we call them the organizational growth committee. It's headed by Bill Taylor, the president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association. He heads that group up. I asked him to do think outside the box to address areas that need reassessment. You look at ODP, for example, and it's an outdated model. In the past, it was a big part of identifying kids for the national teams. It's not really anymore and we're trying to redefine that. Bill's been working with professional [leagues] to become involved in ODP.

And we're looking for ways to fund it so whether you're a poor, rich or in-between kid, if you're talented enough to be in the ODP pool, you can participate. Not just being dependent on scholarships from a generous state association. It's a matter of making the entire program free. That's an example of what we're trying to do.

You can never completely get rid of the pay-to-play model, but we can get rid of some of it. We could lessen the burden, especially on players of lower-income, which unfortunately hits some of the ethnic groups, including Hispanics, inner-city and black kids, disproportionately.

2 comments about "U.S. Youth Soccer's Pete Zopfi on adding Latinos to Youth Task Force and the federation's 'growing pains'".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 18, 2019 at 8:31 p.m.

    Interesting interview. Zopfi gave a well polished presentation, but despite the polish he also comes across as sincere.

  2. Jamie Nicewander, September 25, 2019 at 1:54 p.m.

    How many more are in the 'little leagues' that have no affiliation with any of those organizations?
    I can only speak for my local area when I say that Yuma, Az is the 3rd largest city in Arizona and here, there are double or possibly even triple the number of players that are not registered in any of those categories. I could also highlight that the very best, typically are not and haven't been associated with any of those organizations. This is something to consider when we talk about the development of youth sooccer in America and in recruiting the very best for our National teams.
    Is this something that is being considered at the higher levels of U.S. Soccer and if so, what are they doing to locate talent within those groups?

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