Steve Gans on youth soccer's Wild West and the need for safeguards

Steve Gans  has spent his lifetime in soccer. A former player, he served on Development Academy club boards, and consulted with professional European clubs. He helped organize Boston’s host city efforts during the 1994 World Cup. Two years ago – now an attorney specializing in sports, entertainment and corporate law – he ran for president of U.S. Soccer. More recently, he is one of the attorneys who has represented the USL Players Association in its negotiations with the USL Championship for the league's first collective bargaining agreement and its return to play in July.

He has a ringside seat to behind-the-scenes maneuverings at the highest levels of the international game. But recent trends in youth soccer concern him just as deeply. Gans is contacted several times a week about one legal issue or another. He likens it to “drinking from a firehose.”

Many of those calls involve ethical issues, like clubs poaching coaches, and coaches bringing entire teams with them to their new clubs. Some clubs go further, “stealing” email lists, even sponsors. (Entire leagues are breaking away and forming their own organizations, too. But that’s a different column entirely.)

“It’s a free market,” Gans acknowledges. But when “left to the better or lesser impulses” of human beings, that market begins to look like a free-for-all.

He knows too that coaches “are not indentured servants. They need to have jobs.” But, he says, there is a right way to change employers, and a wrong way. In the absence of any governing body or standardized rules of ethics, it’s the Wild West.

Some clubs, of course, have safeguards in place. They’ve got lawyers on their boards, or hire outside counsel. They write non-solicitation clauses into contracts.

Gans cites the "Recruitment Rules" of the decade-old New England Premiership, for which he serves as outside legal counsel, as an example of provisions that allow coaches to move, yet stop what Gans calls “wholesale rampage.”

Regulations that could help ...

Examples of “good rules,” he says, include prohibitions against coaches contacting players during league play; requirements for coaches that, if contacted by a player during the season, they get permission from the player’s current team before talking to him or her; a prohibition on clubs acquiring entire teams from another club, and a 12-month non-compete rule. That means that a coach who moves from one club to another in the same league or region cannot coach the same age group at their new club.

Most players don’t want to change clubs. But pressure may be intense. And though pressure comes from coaches, some stems from parents, too.

“Parents have dreams for their kids,” Gans explains. “At U-10, they think ‘this club is the path to college, maybe even a scholarship.’” Yet as the child grows older, and circumstances change, fathers and mothers may seek greener pastures.

Though soccer has been part of the American youth sports landscape for years, Gans believes many parents remain unfamiliar with the sport. Feeling less able to judge the qualifications of a soccer coach than in, say, basketball or baseball, they are willing to “outsource” the soccer experience at the beginning of the journey. The older the child gets, the less confident the parents are to judge the promises they hear from more experienced coaches.

The chaotic nature of the youth soccer world contributes to the opportunity for coaches to poach players, and clubs to poach teams. The alphabet soup of competing leagues, even entire associations, means there is little oversight. Organizations exist in silos. They do not communicate across groups.

When he ran for president of U.S. Soccer, Gans told NBC Sports, “I want to solve the fractured youth soccer landscape, and put joy back in the game. We’re creating players without joy. Stop the infighting between sanctioning organizations which affects both youth and adult soccer, but contributes to the 75 percent attrition rate at U-13. That’s not in the best interest for the good of the game.” It’s tough for kids to enjoy the game when their coaches leave for a different club, and they feel pressure to move from adults (including parents). It’s hard for anyone to enjoy the game when lawsuits take precedence over play.

“I couldn’t be busier,” Gans says, referring to youth soccer litigation. “But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. It’s good that clubs retain me because they realize they need to get more organized. But it’s ugly out there. It’s a very tumultuous time.”

12 comments about "Steve Gans on youth soccer's Wild West and the need for safeguards".
  1. James Breslin, June 24, 2020 at 5:03 p.m.

    We have the same problem at the youth level as the Adult level. A disconnected alphabet soup of leagues. US Soccer needs to step up here and unite the clans into a proper pyramid based on sporting merit. US soccer is negligent and the kids and adults suffer. We have an alphabet soup of disconnected local leagues just in my area. No one can solve this except US Soccer. It's almost as if they want it this way. Keep everyone fractured and fighting each other instead of realizing the real enemy is US soccer itself.

  2. R2 Dad replied, June 25, 2020 at 1:56 a.m.

    That is the exact strategy used by those in Washington DC. Bread and Circuses have been replaced with Bread and Protests.

  3. R2 Dad, June 25, 2020 at 2:10 a.m.

    This is the correct take. Everyone can see this Wild West approach is a disservice to players, parents and communities, but with so many adults feeding at the trough there is little initiative for change. What we need is a high-profile court case blaming and shaming the bad actors, in order to drive real reform.
    This guy would seem the ideal candiate to initiate reform in the amateur leagues and discipline within the coaching ranks.Unfortunately, there is no way he can be elected head of USSF by the very same organizations and people he would attempt to reform.

  4. Shaka Walker, June 25, 2020 at 9:13 a.m.

    The "rules" proposed by Mr. Gans give more power to the clubs versus the coaches or players.  Since playing as a kid to being a parent of kids playing, I've seen power shift dramatically toward the clubs and the results of that shift are what we're living now.  Youth soccer has become a very lucrative business.  The money is what is driving the dysfunctional behaviors by the adults involved.  Most youth clubs are following the same playbook of focusing their efforts on games/competitions to attract new/better players in order to generate more wins to attract more players.  This business model is the problem and Mr. Gans proposed rules won't help.  In my view, the focus has to go back to the players--put their development, enjoyment and experience first. Additionally, clubs need to be more financially transparent.  Parents, as the patrons of the club, should receive an annual financial statement detailing how their money was spent.  They should also be able to elect some representatives to the club board so that they can help shape the major decisions made by the club.  If clubs learn to see parents as partners and players as the project then I think we will see meaningful change and, hopefully, greater collegiality.  More lawyers and restrictive covenants is not the answer with, perhaps, the exception of professional academies where there is a path to a professional contract.

  5. humble 1 replied, June 25, 2020 at 12:43 p.m.

    Spot on Shaka.  100% agree.  It does not say but it is likely when Mr. Gans gets calls it is from club, youth orgs or the leagues they run.  Parents pay a club to register their kid.  Clubs pay a youth organization to register their player and play in their leagues.  Clubs, youth organizations and the leagues they run together have built up barriers to keep out competition and lock in the kids.  Losers are players and coach.  Actually, USSF with it's inception of DA then the changes it made culminating in the final chapter closure for me made matter worse and demonstrated a complete lack of leadership and grasp of the sutuation.  Any parent that casually passes through this system without background knowledge or trustable sources to rely upon will leave more confused that when they enter.  Parents can change doctors and schools for their kids as they wish, but try and change soccer clubs, and you are in for some surprises!  

  6. frank schoon, June 25, 2020 at 10:21 a.m.

    Long live the Wild West! It reminds me of the 70's ,80's and 90's of which I have fond memories  of, BEFORE soccer really got to be in the hands of the "power freaks' and controllers. Those were days when , to me, soccer was more fun to coach and be around in and more importantly parents weren't so ripped-off as they are today.

    Sure there were people with sneaky characters, taking advantages,  lie, cheat, or whatever, in those days. But we have those same people today but it is more glorified, more regal, more above board, more respectable producing an air of professionalism making it easier for parents today have to take a second mortgage out for their kid's training ,and coaching, thinking they are really getting for their money.  Well, I got news for you...there has not been any technical improvement of the youth in the past 50years...Go Figure.... I can figure one thing, though , somebody is making 'Buckos'

    I look at the youth development of the past 50 years, since I've been around in youth soccer, it hasn't improved. We got kids coming from 3rd world countries who have much less organization, less money, in other words more of a WILD WEST environmentr, but they can show our kids a thing or two on how to play...Go Figure.

    It appears to be another battle on the administrative and organizational side of the equation, in other words, 'Board Room' fights over the power structures, the one side of the equation that has nothing to do with player development....

  7. R2 Dad replied, June 25, 2020 at 2:06 p.m.

    The Wild West you remember is before travel soccer emerged. The Wild West I'm referring to is the  organizational, coaching & attendant free-for-all money-grab that has been overseen by USSF the past 30 years. USSF is structured to serve the needs of 1980s US Soccer, not today. We need something different, and Steve Gans has the experience but doesn't seem beholden to the money machine. He makes a living off of it, but any real reform he proposes would negatively impact that stream of cash he harvests. I think we should let him have a go at reform, if only to prove US Soccer is irredeemable. 

  8. frank schoon replied, June 25, 2020 at 2:56 p.m.

    R2,  I only talk about travel soccer.

  9. John Polis, June 25, 2020 at 10:42 a.m.

    There are many issues -- structural, organizational, theoretical etc. -- about what's best for our youth players. One thing that's not so good is the very thing that helped the youth soccer boom of the last 30 years: A tremendous number of people in this country have chosen youth soccer as a way to make a living. In short, there are just too many people trying to make money off of youth soccer and whenever there is too much profit-making motivation mixed with youth sport, problems are inevitable. It's just that so many coaches around the country, many from foreign countries, are getting paid by clubs that charge tremendous fees for participation. It would be nice to know how many paid youth coaches there are in the USA vs. paid youth coaches in the other sports. I would be surprised if soccer wasn't leading the way. I'm one of those who see so many kids not being able to take part because of fees. In short, the kids who need soccer the most often get shut out, despite best efforts of clubs to offer "scholarships." I'd like to see youth soccer in the United States renew itself by growing recreational leagues all over the country -- league where players pay the very minimum and the leagues are structured toward getting local sponsors to foot the bill for the kids. This is an aspect of the game that is sorely needed. I have a dream of establishing just such a league in my own local community, where kids with the least get the same opportunity as kids who have more.

  10. Justus From SoCal, June 25, 2020 at 1:59 p.m.

    The wild west is understandment on the West Coast.  It would be nice if someone could help the parents, who are usually stuck in the middle of the turf war for top talent. The kids get tossed around like comondities for the coaches who need them to win the National Championship.  I know coaches who win a natty and then parley that into a ass promotion.  The club win and plaster the accomplishment  on social media so the club gets new sign ups and make more money of the kids who did all the running and risking acl and other dangers.  The winners in all this wild west wars?  The coach who got the promotion and the club who got the natty and more sign ups.  The kid?  Coach leaves and now the kid is free to leave but is told they can;t and will be labled a club hopper.  BS and parents need a Mr Gans to be their man too!!!

  11. Mike Lynch, June 25, 2020 at 8:12 p.m.

    The quantity of elite players produced in our youth development system seems to be about the same as it was in past years (despite the massive increase in numbers playing) but the quantity of good players produced in our youth development systems is more than a thousand thousand; many who could be great volunteer or low stipend coaches just as we all had in the old days. I got the soccer bug from my volunteer/low stipend/former good player coaches who played with us giving us both a good picture and love for the game, love for the ball. Clearly, it was not about the money because he was getting paid little or none at all. He loved soccer and it spread to us. I do recall one of my youth coaches (former Deportivo Cali player) sitting us down when I was only 14 and told us we had a responsibility to teach the game to the next generation when we got older, just as he was with us. That stayed with me and I found a team as soon as I graduated from college. As I became a father, my wife's rule became you can continue to coach provided you are taking one of our children with you. We must do a better job tapping into all the former players who could make great coaches and wean ourselves off this high pay to play system. 

  12. humble 1 replied, June 26, 2020 at 6:31 p.m.

    What you describe, giving your time, is discouraged by the club-mafia.  Most clubs don't even ask for parent volunteers to help with the pitch - common across the world in youth clubs - if you ask - they look with a dumb stare.  Anyway - just look at the body of work of Tom Byer.  Look what he's done in Japan.  Respected around the world - rejected in the USA - by non-other than USSF.  This is because what Tom preaches (1) cannot be monetized and (2) threatens the myth the clubs 'develop' players.  Have fun out there! 

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