USMNT and the development of elite players -- what's next?

About a month ago, I wrote an article about the current roster of the USMNT and its implications. To narrow the gap between the leading MNTs of the planet and to play a semifinal in the World Cup 2026, I suggested the following based on my analysis of the recent USMNT roster. Naturally, I assumed that the best American citizens were chosen for the roster even though some might disagree with the choices.

  1. Enhance our professional leagues and the system of professional leagues so that we have more players choosing local clubs for their elite development.
  2. Nurture local youth clubs so that they can develop more talented elite players at the backdrop of pay-to-play system and the lack of training compensation and solidarity payment.
  3. Integrate talented but underprivileged players coming from a strong soccer culture into the system so that we have more players coming from families with a deep soccer culture who are eligible for the USMNT.

The first two represent the top and bottom of our soccer development pyramid. Even though I dug into this area about a year ago, I once again will concentrate on the youth soccer clubs, the bottom tier of our soccer landscape. My next article will be about the professional leagues, the top of the developmental pyramid for soccer development.

Let us have a look at our youth soccer club scene:

  1. There are about 6,000 youth soccer clubs in the country registered with U.S. Soccer. There are also a good number of unaffiliated clubs – it is difficult to quantify them but anecdotally we know that there are a lot -- with players of which might not be scouted. That is a problem U.S. Soccer recently promised to rectify.
  2. Very few of them are multiple sports youth clubs, if you exclude YMCA and church sports organizations.
  3. They range from rec clubs with less than 100 players to humongous clubs with thousands of players. 
  4. They can be roughly categorized into rec/community clubs, travel clubs and elite clubs. 
  5. They are almost all pay-to-play clubs, except MLS Next teams that are related to MLS teams.
  6. There is little training compensation and/or solidarity payment for players that eventually become professional players.
  7. There is very little if any interaction between clubs and school soccer – which is free to play. There used to be prohibition to play school soccer for DA players. 
  8. Most youth clubs are non-profit organizations formed under as a 501 (c) (3). 

To summarize, the youth soccer club system is unique to our soccer landscape and cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. We must live with this reality. 

So, what could be done at the club level to develop elite players? 

The first step is to understand that there is a need for club development just as much as the need for player, coach, or referee development. We should also understand that mandating a lot and in detail by the National Governing Bodies is not always welcome in our socio-political landscape. The National Governing Bodies should encourage club development and may have a very few basic standards. 

The club boards should also realize that developing players requires not only good coaches, well planned curriculum, and a playing philosophy but also a sound business plan as well as an organization with appropriate governance structure. In any soccer – or sports -- organization – there are three pillars: Game/player development, business development and organization development. 

In my many years as a soccer executive, I reached the conclusion that successful soccer organizations – whether they are National Associations, Leagues or Clubs – always have a very coherent and well-balanced governance structure with a functional organizational structure and staff that can reach the goals of their soccer organization. Once you have that foundation in place, then you can erect the other two pillars with less of a problem.

The problem is that especially with non-profits it is very difficult for the board to assess itself. In our soccer landscape, for youth soccer clubs the parents are customers, and the players are consumers. For non-profit clubs, this translates itself into a “parents association.” Parents are usually the presidents and Board members of the non-profit club. In most cases, when their kids become non-consumers – quit playing – then their board-member parents lose all their interest in the club. Succession planning and planning for more than their term is not usually on their agenda. Unless they realize the importance of the club for their community, they will not feel the need to assess their governance and organizational structure. Even if they do so, they might need professional help to reorganize. It is important that youth soccer clubs convert themselves from “parents associations” into community clubs embracing schools and unaffiliated clubs in their community.

In our landscape, youth soccer clubs rely heavily on players’ fees. They must create other sources of revenue and should have a sound business plan. Since the recent pandemic showed us how vulnerable our youth soccer club system is, they should have plans for risk and crisis management. They should have a communication and marketing strategy in place. Although the parents who are not on the board do not usually realize that management of youth soccer clubs  – even though they are a non-profit organizations – is a business and should be run like a business. Unfortunately, since they do not have any financial liability once their term is over, some of the board members of these “parents associations” do not realize this fact. Youth soccer is real business. With some estimates, it is a business ranging from $5-6 billion. 

The third pillar of game/player development is not my area of expertise. So, I will leave that to the experts. I still know that for the development of the game and players, you need basic developmental principles like player development philosophy, game models and principles and curriculum development to name a few.

If we do not have all the three pillars in place for our youth soccer clubs, then it will be very difficult to develop elite players for our MNT through them. 

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.


14 comments about "USMNT and the development of elite players -- what's next?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, November 18, 2021 at 8:19 a.m.

    You certainly tackle the tough topics. 

    I have only two comments at this point. Both are related.

    I believe you underestimate the importance and extent of unaffiliated soccer in the US, such as schools, churches, ethnic leagues and the "Y".

    I suspect that you also overestimate the degree that "organization" aids player development, especially for pre-teens. The kids need playing opportunities, not adult organization and supervision beyond that necessary for safety. Friends, family, and peers provide the necessary "coaching" for pre-teens.

  2. Ben Myers replied, November 19, 2021 at 12:21 p.m.

    Well, our national soccer organizations also underestimate the importance and extent of unaffiliated soccer in the US, such as schools, churches, ethnic leagues and the "Y".

  3. R2 Dad, November 18, 2021 at 11:59 a.m.

    "developing players requires not only good coaches, well planned curriculum, and a playing philosophy but also a sound business plan as well as an organization with appropriate governance structure." I don't have the numbers, but I suspect at least 85% of all youth players do NOT play in a club that meets these criteria. There are all these mom & pop clubs run on a shoestring where it's a weekly struggle just to get coaches to all their match commitments and with associated rosters/documentation. I don't see that's it's possible to bridge this gap.

  4. Philip Carragher, November 18, 2021 at 3:22 p.m.

    Great article. Over the years, I've seen a growth in the number of clubs that purport to have curriculums, but, if they do, they usually don't have a coaching staff that can effect it. Also, at times, I've witnessed a strong coach who knows his stuff and teaches his players good soccer only to have the next coach fumble the gains away. If a  club is to be successful it needs a cadre of good coaches willing to coach that age group and hopefully for more then a year or two. One program that's off the charts successful in having great committed coaches, volunteer coaches no less, is St. Raphael's football program in Naperville, IL. They've sold great coaches on the benefits of developing youth via their football program and their camraderie and consistentcy has only been undermined by the concussion issues. But, back to soccer: what I've been most puzzled by is how to improve coaching without firing the bad or ineffective ones and at this juncture I'd say most don't make the grade. The pay-to-play system is such a juggernaut that what I view as a necessary step in fixing coaching is to undertake a pretty good housecleaning. That seems like a heavy lift.

  5. Richard Crow, November 18, 2021 at 4:12 p.m.

    The only way that you’ll improve coaching is by paying the coaches. Where do you get the money? Get rid of all the refs below U10 and use the money to pay coaches.
    In this scenario you could use money now budgeted for referees to hire two coaches to work with a cohort of 40 players and four teams that play 7-a-side. The coaches organize the teams, ref the games and reorganize the teams when necessary to guarantee competitive play. If a player is not at the level of the cohort, move him/her up or down to another 40-player cohort in the same or different age group. 

    This is not a hypothetical concept. I’ve done this. Why should the national soccer community spend millions of dollars every year on referees that don’t teach skills? This money should be spent on qualified coaches that care about developing all players in their cohort and club.

    A system that requires coaches to officiate can also be a path to officiating for those who are interested. 

  6. Kent James replied, November 18, 2021 at 5:16 p.m.

    I did this about 20 years ago, and it worked well.  Organized kids by age group, had a curriculum for each age group (planned out the practice groups), used volunteer coaches to implement the plan.  Every kid in the same age group got the same t-shirt (uniform) and we played small-sided games on Saturdays (after 2 practices during the week).  Used pinnies to differentiate the teams, the coaches managed the games, switching kids if the teams were uneven so the games were always competitive.  After a few weeks of the season, we grouped the kids by skill levels (strong, average, and weak, though we obviously didn't tell the kids this) and organized games within those groups.  Worked brilliantly for all the kids (the weaker kids got to play bigger roles in their games, and the games amongst the strong kids were very high level).  The nicest part was that because there were no permanent teams, parents just cheered good plays and didn't care who won.  

  7. R2 Dad replied, November 18, 2021 at 6:25 p.m.

    Wow, terrible idea. First, most coaches don't know the LOTG. Second, most coaches don't care about player development, only winning. If you can find some coaches that have something to contribute to player development, maybe. But most coaches I've seen don't know the basics and it shows in the primative skills and awareness of their players. How many U12 players can properly trap the ball with both feet, and chest down a ball instead of heading? Maybe one or two on a squad of 18. By U15 nothing has changed. No. We have seen the wild west where coaches run the clubs and leagues, and have little to show for it the past 30 years. I'm more inclined to say eliminate coaches up to U12 and focus on futsal and 5 aside with no coaches or refs and save everyone's time and money. Build a few mini-pitches in every town and remove the grownups who have taken all the fun out of the game.

  8. Kent James replied, November 19, 2021 at 11:12 a.m.

    R2, while you have some valid concerns, you're missing the point.  The coaches that run the youth skills program need to have been educated in youth development. I took the USSF Youth National Coaching License and it helped me see the youth game in a whole new perspecitve.  Where paid coaches can be problematic is when they've had no youth training, they're in a competitive environment where they're expected to win, and they try to make a U10 team play like Barcelona. The program I developed is essentially organized pick-up, with the practices focusing on skill development (where each kid has a ball at their feet much of the time).  The key is to keep it fun (it's playing, not "training").  This is for kids U10 and below.  It's very hard to find volunteers with the skills necesary to run a program, but by paying one person, they could manage volunteer parents to organize the practices and games, and then it doesn't cost much.  Also, you don't need refs at this age, because U10 most kids don't conciously foul.  And if they do (there are always a few), you tell them to stop and just pull them out of the game if they won't listen.  No need for officials, or a deep understanding of the rules.  We were even flexible on the sidelines (why interrupt the flow of the game if the kids don't notice?).  The point is to get a lot of kids playing small sided soccer with no pressure and in a fun environment. Add appropriately trained coaches to the mix and you can boost the pace of development.  They can also educate the parents (who want to see their kids play a game that looks like the adult game, with big goals, referees, throw-ins, etc.).  It can work.

  9. Richard Crow, November 18, 2021 at 4:18 p.m.

    And of course, any club that chooses a model to pay coaches instead of referees would need a soild business and management plan.

  10. Philip Carragher, November 19, 2021 at 9:36 a.m.

    Thank you all for your thoughts on this. Very helpful.

  11. humble 1, November 19, 2021 at 11:35 a.m.

    With all due respect, when I read about youth soccer solutions and not a word about the largest free youth platform and the only free ones, I stop reading.  HS soccer is the only way around the pay-play-barrier.  20 MLS clubs with 3 free teams each, U15/16, U17 and U19 will not break open the US market, and open soccer up to the masses.  HS soccer needs higher coaching standards and more referees.  This needs to be a priority. Soccer is not complicated, as it seems, it really is simple at the youth level.  We do not need to re-invent the wheel.  While USSF was busy, literally, sitting on a war chest of $100M for a decade, US Youth Hockey rebuilt itself and has tangible results to show.  It did so, following the German, reboot model, acknowledging the role of schools in the development process and incorporating them.  <> Really, y'all, not that complicated, but, and this is the big deal, all those 501c3's, where someone is pulling down $300k per year, and all of whom are the members and pay the bills at USYS, and USCS, and AYSO, this type of plan in NOT in their interest.  Cheers! 

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, November 19, 2021 at 2:37 p.m.

    Also high school provides cross training opportunities. Young athletes that play mulitple sports generally are better athletes and smarter players. 

    You might think competitive tennis has no value to a soccer player, but it develops tremendous first step quickness with both feet over 360 degrees. Priceless. It also teaches important tactical concepts such as controlling the initiative and passing lanes.

  13. Kent James replied, November 21, 2021 at 11:12 a.m.

    Humble, I agree public schools are the most efficient way of offering soccer to people who don't have the money (or connections) to get involved in clubs. But HS is too late to start; I had many good athletes start playing in 9th grade, but by starting at such a late age, they were always limited in how good they can be.  USSF should develope (if they haven't already) a soccer program for use in gym classes, probably based on futsal. 

  14. Philip Carragher, November 19, 2021 at 2:07 p.m.

    Thanks humble 1. Kids in our area start travel soccer in 3rd grade and maybe even sooner.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications