Within weeks of becoming CEO of US Youth Soccer, though, that’s what happened. Gilbert – who played college and pro soccer, and worked with NGOs in tennis, triathlon and swimming before returning to the sport he loved – suddenly led 3 million players, 300,000 coaches and 600,000 volunteers through a norm-shifting, foundation-shaking pandemic.
Eight months after COVID-19 struck, the parameters of changes – in both American society and youth soccer – are becoming clearer. USYS was one of the first sports organizations to recognize the “runaway freight train” headed its way. Now, as Gilbert, his staff and volunteers clear the wreckage, they see a chance to make changes that could forge new routes for involvement, enjoyment and success.
After canceling a major event in Las Vegas in March, Gilbert says, his leadership team turned to the vital task of supporting its 55 member associations. There was the immediate issue of ensuring the safety of players, coaches and referees, as well as the “bigger challenge” of managing parental expectations.
“Every group in the country had three factions,” Gilbert explains. “Some parents said, ‘We can’t play.’ Others said, ‘We have to play.’ And there were quiet people on the fence, who didn’t say anything. I wanted to find fact-based, scientific solutions that everyone, including politicians, could use.”
It was not easy. Even in geographically small New England, neighboring associations came up with different plans. Vermont mandated masks; Massachusetts changed playing rules; Rhode Island banned players from leaving the state, and New Hampshire – the “Live Free or Die” state – played through everything.
“Multiply that by the entire United States, and it was a lot to manage,” Gilbert says. The map still changes daily, as a new wave surges across the country. There is no youth soccer in California, for example – but there is next door, in Arizona.
One silver lining, according to Gilbert: “We hit the pause button. I constantly said, ‘Let’s look at everything we do. If we were building this organization from the ground up, how do we want it to look five years from now?’”
That meant reexamining every arrow in US Youth Soccer’s quiver: the National Championships and National League, Olympic Development Program, Presidents Cup, recreational programs. The goal is to “come out better, stronger, and more receptive to the needs of tomorrow’s player.”
The vision statement now reads: “to bring communities together through the power of soccer, making lifelong fans of the sport.” Gilbert wants to stem the tide of youngsters walking away from the game at young ages, because of disenchantment or feeling they are “not good enough” for the next step.
“I hate the term ‘recreational player,’” Gilbert says. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s preceded by ‘just a …’ Hearing that over and over does something to the psyche.”
Soon, USYS will roll out League America. Details have not yet been announced, but the goal is for millions of youngsters to feel they are part of something far beyond their local league. Gilbert envisions a “developmental pipeline” that will keep players playing, encourage them to become coaches and referees, and join “the fabric of the game in this country.”
The USYS CEO hopes League America can work with high schools, too, to introduce club programs for players not in the interscholastic program.
Another initiative – USYS University – launches in January. Working with partners, the national association will address mental health and wellness issues in the youth soccer arena. Also ahead: helping the National Council of Youth Sports develop a curriculum for underserved youth. The coronavirus has forced a fresh look at elite sports, Gilbert notes. There is a new assessment of the “need” to travel for competition, a sudden appreciation for the joys of playing nearby teams in home-and-away series.
As families re-examine their priorities in the wake of the pandemic, Gilbert wants youth soccer to be relevant, and US Youth Soccer to be an important part of the American soccer landscape. A crucial question is “how do we work with MLS and MLS Next, the Girls Academy, USL and and NWSL? We want to be partners, moving in the same direction.”
“COVID-19 is not going away. It’s heartbreaking,” Gilbert acknowledges. “But at the end of the day, there’s also an opportunity here for us to help a lot of kids have a lot of fun.”
Belated congratulations on the new position, Skip.
Thanks Ken! Been a long time, hope all is well.
Unfortunately, USYS is just a cog in the USSF wheel. Without the proper structure, USYS partnering is going to just be marketing. USSF has punted on developing a structure, leaving it all to unassociated leagues to figure it out on their own. Does any advanced soccer nation do this kind of nonsense? It's been 25 years--if we are in the same space in 25 more years, will that be long enough for USSF to understand that pro-rel is the sporting solution that nobody wants to entertain for purely business reasons?
There are historical thoughts that come to mind, of a competitive coach, when they thing about 'recreational play'--all negative. At the same time, they have no qualms on watching a recreational player, to recruit (typically they 'take' the player, through a variety of 'recruitment' scenarios). The standard 'recreational player' is happy with going to their local games, and so are their families. The parents are happy because they can afford fo the player to play, especially if they have more than one playing. This does not mean that a recreational player is not happy about more engaging play, especially a travel to a tournament, getting away from home, and teams that they see all the time. These traveling recrealtional teams still adhered to the 'recreational theme', that all players were guaranteed at least 50% playing time, and maintained the 'fun' aspect of playing. This was in contrast to traveling competitive teams, where the was no guarantee of playing time, with the aspect of play was toward winning. Those who were playing the best, played the most, as the primary objective was to win games/tournaments. Many 'recreational' players did not want this type of environment, where there existed more pressure to 'produce'.
There also used to be a wide selection of 'recreational' tournaments that recreational teams could not forward to going to, yearly, if they chose to. All of there tournaments have essentially vanished, and the only tournnamen that is left is the annual state tournament. The thought exists that to go to the state tournament, you have to be the 'best of the best' to have a chance.
The cost to play factors into many families decision to sign a player up. With standard recreational play, there is no transportation expense, as you play locally, no traveling expense (i.e. gas, food, hotel), and no extra uniform costs (traveling teams may have extra uniform/sweat needs, which the family has to pay for). There are players that stay with recreational play, even though they might like to play on a competitive traveling team, simply because their family cannot afford it. In the COVID pandemic era, a good number of families are feeling a financial pinch. When soccer does get a chance to starting regular play again, families that will have suffered financially will still be trying to play catch-up with expenses vs. income. There may be many players that will not play initially, simply because their families cannot afford it.
Skip, As discussed previously these are good topics of discussion for sure, each market has there own challenges and California is a political nightmare where it's members do not realize how much infighting and how broken their representatives can be about the things that should be important to the care and development of players and the game. This all starts with honest conversations about Statewide infastructures to help grow the game, the sport and make sure the kids are competing in a fun and nuturing environment.
Recreational play, for kids as well as parents, should be the foundation on which US soccer is built. Get a lot of kids playing in a supportive, inexpensive, local league for fun to maximize the number of chances kids will develop into stars. Keeping adults playing keeps people healthy and focused on the joys of the game. Then build the competitive structure on top of that, not replacing that. And pickup soccer at all times and everywhere!