Schools hold the key to growing soccer culture and access to play in the USA

In 2007, I predicted that by now we'd have pre-natal soccer camps and U-2 national championships in the USA. They haven't quite gotten there.

The toddler soccer school industry doesn't sign them up until they're 18 months old. National championships haven't dipped much below the teens, but your club can find them for every year's age group starting at U-13. And there are plenty of "showcase" events you can fly to with even younger teams.

Last month's sad news that Gerard Houllier died reminded me of when we met at the 2008 United Soccer Coaches convention -- and his incredulous look when told that in the USA there are U-10 state cups and national youth championships for 13-year-olds. He told us that in France they have regional competition for U-16s and the first French national championship was at U-18. Another World Cup-winning country from the last decade, Germany, is the size of Montana and has two youth national championships -- U-16 and U-19.

I can imagine how age groups got younger and younger for American national championships, showcase tournaments and long-distance travel, because I've long followed the boasting about the multi-million dollar economic impact of such events. Adding more age groups, which means going younger, swells that economic impact. Whether these youngsters need a national championship or airline travel to find strong competition is a question they easily ignore when they're adding up entrance fees and hotel commissions.

Four decades ago, U.S. national team coach Bob Gansler warned that America was "suffering from a huge case of tournamentitis." And that was when the tournament industry was still in its infancy. A decade ago, U.S. Youth Soccer found it necessary to state that: “We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development, and can serve to reduce long-term motivation."

I don't dismiss the value of tournament travel for children -- and families. I imagine most who have coached, played and/or parented in the youth game as I have cherish fond memories from youth soccer trips. Travel boosts camaraderie, exposes us different parts of the country and diverse styles of soccer. But I've had conversations with youth coaches who said they travel more than they feel necessary -- because their leagues require it or parents equate more travel with a higher level. And no doubt there are legions of coaches who relish the all-expenses paid travel, networking opportunities, and the thrills of tournament competition. Why wouldn't they?

When the Covid hit early last year and the youth soccer landscape began shifting in the wake of U.S. Soccer ending its Development Academy, I imagined an opportunity to localize and regionalize the youth game. That, by my reasoning, would lead to more affordable youth soccer. It didn't take long to realize that the post-DA era youth soccer will continue to be a turf war between governing bodies and event promoters competing for national championship entries, tournament registration fees and hotel commissions. Indeed, new national championships have already been announced.

But why shouldn't there be as many national championships and "showcases" as the market can bear as long as there are satisfied customers? American youth soccer will always be a free market, for better or worse. As United Soccer Coaches CEO Lynn Berling-Manuel put it recently: "At the high end of our sport, there are more options for players than ever. I appreciate the desire by some for a single pathway for players but that just isn’t how America operates."

She followed up with, "What I’d love to see is rather than slice the pie smaller, U.S. Soccer focus on making a bigger pie. The public school systems from kindergarten through high school are blue water opportunities for soccer."

The potential for schools to play a larger and more significant role in American youth soccer has been on my mind for some time now. What other level of soccer provides as many kids cost-free soccer as high school ball does? Where is time carved out in a child's daily routine for play? At school recess and P.E. As former AYSO national executive director Mike Hoyer put it: "Sports in schools eliminates the three basic challenges of providing play equity to economically challenged areas or communities that are underserved for youth sports: transportation, affordability, and accessibility."

U.S. Soccer Foundation CEO Ed Foster-Simeon cites alarming statistics on the limited access to parks for children in the USA, and says: "That’s why the U.S. Soccer Foundation believes it's so important to build small soccer courts at schools and neighborhood parks a short walk or bike ride from where children in under-served communities live and go to school." During four years of volunteering in Oakland for Soccer Without Borders, whose teams play in leagues under the U.S. Youth Soccer and U.S. Club umbrellas, I've seen how essential the availability of school facilities and the cooperation with a school district is to so many youth players. 

In June, I interviewed former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, whose founding of the Urban Soccer Leadership Academy offers a fine example how youth soccer can partner with a school district. America Scores has been spurring soccer in schools since 1994. Hoyer told me about the Beyond the Bell program in Los Angeles. No doubt there are many more examples of organizations partnering with schools for underserved children.

But regardless of a child's socio-economic background, the potential of soccer in schools to boost the American youth soccer is tremendous, as Paul Kennedy pointed out a year ago in his article: "Think small and think local: SA's tips for using schools to address soccer's access problem," in which he cited some of the valuable research done by the Aspen Institute. The obvious conclusion: "Focusing on establishing schools as hubs for sports and recreation. They already provide easy and safe access for all youths in school. And they have families with a vested interest in using the facilities for the greater interest of the community."

Post-Development Academy, post-pandemic youth soccer in America will continue to compete for parents' money in ways that are not, in my opinion, always necessary for creating fun and beneficial soccer experiences for children. The difference going forward is that U.S. Soccer has freed itself from the turf war fray and, besides its national team program mission, can serve a far wider swath of soccer in the USA by supporting soccer in schools.

U.S. Soccer did clubs a huge favor by banning high school play in the DA. Imagine how much more income clubs received from the thousands of players who paid year-round club costs. In this new era, U.S. Soccer should help improve high school soccer instead of dismissing it by harping on its flaws. How about offering school coaches its entry level coaching courses free of charge and significantly subsidize the higher level courses for high school coaches?

As Kennedy suggested, local youth leagues and clubs are best positioned to partner and boost school soccer. But with its leadership and resources, and by encouraging club-school cooperation, U.S. Soccer can complement the groundwork that has already been laid to create a far more expansive youth soccer culture in the USA.

15 comments about "Schools hold the key to growing soccer culture and access to play in the USA".
  1. Kent James, January 15, 2021 at 3:09 a.m.

    This article is absolutely spot on in a number of areas.  First, the idea of crowning national champions at young ages is counterproductive.  Age of development of the players is too important a factor to make competition a valid measure of ability before the late teens.  And the pressure to win, the cost of travel (in time and money) hurt more than they help.  In some tournaments it's also hard to find appropriate competition.  And in most areas, there are enough good players to obviate the need for traveling to find new competition (probably more likely to be appropriate in less populated areas, but not generally).

    The other major theme that is key is using schools to develop players inexpensively.  The kids are there, they need to exercise, soccer is an effiicient way to use space.  It would be great if US Soccer created a simple curriculum that elementary and Jr HS schools could implement.  I would recommend buiding it around futsal.  Too many kids (especially in urban communities where soccer is not big) don't get the opportunities they should.  Building a desire by letting kids experience the magic of the game at an early age will pay off as they get older, as Lynn Berling-Manuel said, by making the pie bigger.  

  2. frank schoon, January 15, 2021 at 9:45 a.m.

    Tournaments??? Tourmaments ,to me, was a way getting out of the house for the weekend. Like going to Virginia Beach and just relax and enjoy watching the kids play. To me, it was a way of social adjustments , parents actually getting together enjoying respite, especially on a 3-day weekend. But don't tell me that tournament is great way for the development of the player, socially perhaps.

    You know what actually would have helped  the development of the youth player is not to go to a tournament and  stay home and tell the players you must WORK only with your 'left foot' or weak leg, a full two hours each day for 3days. This can be carried out individually or in couples or in whole or small groups with or without the coach. BINGO!!!  Can you imagine how much better one's weak foot would improve after having working 6hours in short short time.

    By the way, remember last year around this time when there was no soccer going on due to Covid. I wonder how many kids went out to work on their weak leg. How many coaches actually called their players and set up a schedule, telling them, " Look, since their is no soccer going on, I want you guys to stay a step ahead of things  and now is good time to work on your 'WEAK' leg; and just imagine how much you will improve as a player after 3months". Cruyff once mentioned that by working an hour each day for two weeks on your weak foot works wonders. I wonder HOW MANY coaches put this suggestion to their players instead of complaining about Covid...I'm sure the figure comes close to ZERO....The adage of Cruyff saying, ' for every disadvantage their is an advantage, certainly wasn't put to use in this case.
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  3. frank schoon, January 15, 2021 at 10:41 a.m.

    To think, players will learn and improve going to tournaments playing supposedly better teams, is rediculous.One, in tournaments teams are bracketed who are similar in quality, Two, there is no difference in soccer abilities between the youth players other than in INDIVIDUAL cases. When you watch these kids play ,where ever these teams come from, play the same way, make the same bad passes and mistakes and the soccer philosophy of the coaches are all the same and only in personality. There is nothing new here as far as thinking there is better level of quality soccer to be had at the tournaments, just watch the MLS, the American players all have similar abilities.

    The idea of equality of soccer development through the medium of school has some ,but little, merit. That would require at present much, much more than what meets the eye here.The CEO of Soccer Coaches Association, Lynn Berling-Manuel, bringing schools into this equation, NEVER, I mean, NEVER mentioned PICKUP SOCCER as means of not only developing the player but reducing costs for a youth player. Has she ever played pickup soccer? What is her soccer experience? or is she another personality that comes from administrative side of the equation not the field.

    As I read the comments of all these Administrative types, NONE, but NONE ever express to CREATE a desire to instill a want into the kids of playing PICKUP soccer . All they talk about building soccer courts , employing schools and what not. Not that I don't disagree with these ideas but they are ARTIFICIAL ,hoping that through these mediums kids will improve and play soccer.  

    What we're missing is the impetus of  INSTILLING a desire of wanting to play PICKUP. Once  you instill a desire of wanting to play PICKUP, everything will follow from that; parents will demand more sights for playing because that's what the kids want. In many ways, kids in cities in Europe find places to play, like basketball courts, backyards, alleys( check out Cruyff's neighborhood)any open spaces, parking lots. We in the US, especially in the Suburbs have so much more space to employ PICKUP soccer. But I don't see it because their is no INDIDUAL desire or ATTEMPTS to creat e a desire for youth. So many problems can be overcome once we ESTABLISHED A DESIRE FOR PICKUP SOCCER.

  4. John Polis, January 15, 2021 at 10:56 a.m.

    Glad to see that Soccer America and United Soccer Coaches have recently spoken in favor of looking at high school soccer as an opportunity instead of an albatross. It cannot be denied that "elitist" viewpoints on the game's development has in some ways held it back.

    Mike's article reminded me vividly of a time around 1991 when I lived in Chicago working for the U.S. Soccer Federation. My home was in Naperville and after some time there the neighbors became aware of where I worked. One day, a mother from across the street said hello and shared her delight that her son had been named to his soccer club travel team.

    I congratulated her in a friendly way and asked how old her son was. "He's nine," she said. At the time, the thought of the formation of a nine-year-old travel team was extremely troubling. It still is. One of my criticisms of all youth sports in the USA over the last 30 years is the obsession with such early separation of the haves from the have-nots. And this, way back in the 90s is a most extreme example of it.

    The elitism that begins to infect soccer clubs once these young kids are told that they are "advanced" and playing "competitive" (as if the kids running their hearts out in the rec leagues aren't competitive) is something we should guard against. Parents today who shell out large sums of money for their "advanced" soccer-playing child remind me of parents in my day (clearly the stone age of the 50s and 60s) who went to great lengths to give their kids music lessons. It seems every kid was in dance, playing an instrument, entering talent shows etc. My own parents didn't have much but they shelled out a lot of money for my own musical training.

    Thank goodness I had parents who cared, and thanks to all the parents who love their kids enough to enable them to gain the experience that only competitive sports provide. But the truth is not all parents can afford it. Check that. I would say that if you look at all parents at all income levels in the USA, most of them can't afford to write the large checks it takes to compete at the advanced levels of the youth game in the USA. 

    The more we break down this elitism, as I call it, the better off we will be -- both for the overall grassroots growth of the game and for the overall development of our kids. With more opportunities to play in grade school and high school (where the infrastructure is already in place and working parents don't have to transport their kids to practice when they can't because they are at work), everyone wins.

    When the history book is finally written about how soccer became part of America's inner culture, I believe it will contain a chapter that chronicles a turning point -- when the doors truly opened wide for all kids to participate, regardless of their parents' abiity to pay. More soccer in more of our schools will help.

  5. Mike Woitalla replied, January 16, 2021 at 12:21 p.m.

    Thanks John for sharing your insights! Well said!

  6. Kent James replied, January 17, 2021 at 10:36 p.m.

    Well said.  I think there two competing models of elite player development.  In the current one, qualifed coaches select promising young players and shower resources on them (or have their parents do it) to get the most competitive environment to allow them to be appropriately challenged to help them develop as quickly and fully as possible.  If you have limited resources and want to compete at the highest levels, this is not crazy, and probably does help some of the players involved become very strong players.  But the cost is the exclusion and negelct of all those players not selected. And that is this model's achilles heel.

    The alternative model is that you keep the costs down, include everybody, and expand the pool of talent, with the hopes that vast pool will allow enough players to develop more on their own,  and then select them when they get older. This works in a soccer-crazy culture (like Brazil) where you don't have to do too much to get lots of kids to play.  Theoretically, this would take less resources than the first model, since it's more organic.

    I think the best model is to take the resources in the first model and apply them to the second, giving kids enough places to play (and making sure they at least get some good basic training that focuses on skills), and making the environment competitive enough to keep their interest but supportive enough no one fears making mistakes.  

  7. humble 1, January 15, 2021 at 4:36 p.m.

    Idealy, yes.  Reality no.  HS Soccer is not futbol.  Just this week in a HS game I was watching a player was given a yellow card for a foul, the attacking team put the ball in play quickly, but the referee yelled 'stop - he has to get off the field'.  Game came to a complete stop, including the backwards counting game clock.  Neither coach had any clue beyond their basic configuration as it related to tactics, but they were good coaches, just not trained in the game.  This from the front lines.     

  8. Ahmet Guvener, January 15, 2021 at 5:05 p.m.

    Excellent article. 

  9. Mike Lynch, January 15, 2021 at 7:22 p.m.


    Good article Mike about many needed changes. I don't agree that high school's gain is elite soccer's loss. They can and should both flourish, especially in our latino communities where HS ball is a great fit (and does not hold back player development). I also believe greater numbers need to pair down to more local state or border state area competitions as the majority of their time.  With soccer participation numbers down post COVID, especially for the non, ultra elite player group, HS ball and more local competitions should be pursued more. It's a better use of money, better use of time. Bottom line: 1) Money should not be the primary barrier for player access to teams. 2) Travel time should never exceed playing time. 

  10. humble 1 replied, January 18, 2021 at 1:48 p.m.

    Agree with everything you say, but, I have personally listened to parents recount the difficulties of balancing club and HS soccer and in many cases, the pull of HS soccer wins, it is essentially free.  Club sees this as money walking out the door.  They pressure coaches to 'retain' players and punish them when they do not.  From the front lines. 

  11. Ben Myers, January 16, 2021 at 7:51 p.m.

    I have only one quibble with this excellent article, peetaining to "What other level of soccer provides as many kids cost-free soccer as high school ball does?"  Many high schools, running with strapped budgets, have insituted "user fees", paid by parents for their kids to participate in any school sport, not just soccer.  That said, the user fees are modest compared to club soccer, around $300 per student in my town's school system, and yes there are waivers of fees for hardship.

    I have long advoated cooperation and collaboration between club soccer and school soccer, informally providing advice, player evaluations, match commentary from opposite the team benches, and sometimes running specialized training sessions (e.g. corner kicks and free kicks) for our school's soccer teams.  As with any high school sport, the quality of coaching in school soccer is mixed, ranging from highly qualified and licensed coaches with playing experience to people who do little to develop the players while picking up extra money.  It is far better to work together "for the good of the game" and for the good of the players than to get into turf wars about playing school or club, but not both.  Like it or not, school soccer is not going away so it behooves us to take on some responsibility to make it better.

  12. Alexander Wolfe, January 18, 2021 at 10:40 a.m.

    Great article. U.S. Soccer can't do much about middle-class parents who are obsessed with their child's sport and determined to sink thousands of dollars in it, but it can support greater opportunities for those kids who can't afford the expense of plalying for an "elite" club.

    Plus, school soccer has benefits that go beyond producing quality soccer players. Kids who play for their school participate in a community, and that community turns out to watch them play (unlike club tournaments, where it's the team parents and maybe some coaches wandering around.) How many kids playing soccer, even the "elite" kids, wouldn't love the chance to play for their school in front of hundreds of fans?

  13. Mike Anderson, January 18, 2021 at 10:53 a.m.

    Another couple of advantage to the schools:

    Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of former players - now dads - would love to give back to the game through coaching youth. The current club format is too much of a commitment. It requires full-time career coaches. If club were to supplement schools, dads could play a huge role; naturally lowering the cost element. I'm not dreaming it; this is how I grew up in the game. And my club coach (a dad) was probably the best coach I ever played for. 

    Kids are already at school. They don't need to travel anywhere to train. The club time committment is difficult for the boys at my son's (academically rigorous) school. But playing for the school program works beautifully.

    Community and school pride - boys love representing their school. Communities and students love supporting their school. Beyond parents what community gets fired up about club sports. Some of the best athletes in a school aren't even allowed to participate in school athletics. Huge lost opportunity for increasing popularity of the sport. Note - my son has a couple of top-tier academy players in his school team. The passion and excitement when they represent their school in front of their classmates is amazing - and can't be duplicated at the club level!

  14. humble 1, January 18, 2021 at 1:45 p.m.

    Great idea. "In this new era, U.S. Soccer should help improve high school soccer instead of dismissing it by harping on its flaws. How about offering school coaches its entry level coaching courses free of charge and significantly subsidize the higher level courses for high school coaches?"

  15. don Lamb, January 19, 2021 at 9:27 a.m.

    The US Soccer Foundation talks about how they want want futsal courts built everywhere, but when you contact them with a project that has has local support and only needs a few thousand dollars, they will say, "No, you have to use these contractors, and do it this way so that it costs tens of thousands of dollars." It's maddening that they complicate and bog down a process that could be so much simpler, quicker, and cheaper.

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