Commentary

Skip Gilbert on U.S. Youth Soccer serving the myriad sectors of the American game

When Skip Gilbert  interviewed to be CEO of U.S. Youth Soccer, no one asked him about COVID.

He took over in January 2020. Two months later, he found himself steering nearly three million players, and a million coaches, administrators and referees, through one of the biggest health crises in American history.

The pandemic derailed the new head’s plans for his new role. Strategic planning, raising the profile of the largest youth soccer organization in the world, strengthening relationships with other groups -- all took a backseat to responding to a virus that closed fields and affected every club.

COVID is still here. But Gilbert has turned his attention to the tasks he articulated two years, when he interviewed for the job.

One of the most important questions he was asked during the interview was “What is your perception of USYS?”

He had a good perspective. He’d served in a variety of positions with sports governing bodies, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, U.S. Tennis Association USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, and U.S. Soccer Federation.

He knew soccer well. He played at the University of Vermont, and for the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, and trained with Sheffield United and in the Netherlands.

His response: U.S. Youth Soccer was “the largest youth organization in the world that no one outside of soccer has ever heard of.”

He vowed to make USYS a resource center for all its members – and a go-to organization for any issue involving youth sports, fitness and wellness.

“If you’re a new parent, knowing nothing about soccer, how can you get information?” he asks rhetorically. “If you’re a player, how do you get perspective for your journey from the recreational side to the top of the food chain: Division I college, MLS, the national teams?”

The pandemic put a stop to those ambitions. A skeletal staff remained at Frisco, Texas, headquarters, outside of Dallas. Many have now returned. They’re working on polishing the public’s perception of USYS. Part of the process involves examining many of the organization’s programs and procedures.

The Olympic Development Program is one. When Gilbert played, he says, ODP was the only route to the U.S. national team. Now it’s one of many.

“We need to show the public the benefits of playing ODP,” Gilbert says. “We’re concentrating n the ‘development’ phase. Plenty of clubs have phenomenal training programs. But there’s value in bringing the top players in, so they can train together. It gives them a different perspective.”

For clubs themselves, Gilbert looks to the Little League World Series model. It’s an internationally recognized brand, offering a goal for every young baseball player anywhere.

This August, U.S. Youth Soccer launches the Champions Cup. The invitational event will include teams “regardless of registration provider, membership status or carding entity.” Selection will be based on “performance in championship-caliber events from around the world.” Gilbert hopes to invite not just USYS age-group national champions, but winners from U.S. Club Soccer, ECNL, MLS Next and Girls Academy events too. He envisions “a canvas where kids can paint a picture of who’s best.”

At the same time, he’s setting his sights on free play. A large segment of youngsters have no desire to play on a college, or even high school team. They just want to have fun. USYS needs to provide a model, Gilbert says, for harnessing their enthusiasm for less structured, but very enjoyable soccer.

The CEO is focusing too on “softer areas” like referee development. He is aware that officials of all ages are being driven away by abuse from parents, coaches and players.

Gilbert sees that as part of a “center circle” analogy. Just as the game begins with a kickoff and spreads out from there, so does the work of USYS. How, he asks, can his group touch everyone affected by youth soccer, and help them stay connected with the sport for life?

That brings him back to his COVID-delayed strategic plan. It’s not easy corralling 54 state associations, and those millions of players and volunteers. But they are, figuratively and literally, the “boots on the ground.” They are the ones who can help youth soccer thrive, providing the impetus for all that follows.

Small-sided and 11-v-11 games and training are important. But so too are other forms like futsal and beach soccer, Gilbert says.

As well as e-sports. “I thought that would be the death of sports,” he says referring to the meteoric rise of video games. “But they bring people into soccer. They want to actually play the game. We need to embrace that. Lots of people are married to how things were done in the 1970s and ‘80s. We’re in 2022 now. We have to look at doing things differently.”

Photos courtesy of U.S. Youth Soccer

8 comments about "Skip Gilbert on U.S. Youth Soccer serving the myriad sectors of the American game".
  1. Clive Toye, January 13, 2022 at 10:03 a.m.

    What a wonderful story to read.  Again and again.

  2. Wayne Norris, January 13, 2022 at 10:04 a.m.

    I think all of this is fantastic....Hopefilly USWNT is not successful in taking $36M from US Soccer that might be better used for these initiatives....

  3. Mike Lynch, January 13, 2022 at 10:07 a.m.

    Dan, good article on a very integral group of people in our sport's future. USYS has their core functions but also at the point of impact for so many other evolving challenges related to the safety and well being of our players, coaches and our sport's continued growth and impact on culture, such as heading, sportsmanship including tactical fouls, periodization including sport overuse injuries, rising fees including exhorbitant pay to play structures, and more. I look forward to seeing Gilbert continue to make a positive influence in his new role. 

  4. Mike Prosser, January 13, 2022 at 10:45 a.m.

    READ over the book - "Shoeless Soccer" by Carlo Celli & Nathan Richardson - and let's FINALLY start working from the ground level UP.  It's not accomplished much doing the Big Tournaments, making kids pay-to-play destitute and not accomplished much player development to be perfectly HONEST.  

  5. Kent James, January 13, 2022 at 2:40 p.m.

    ODP should be turned into regional training centers, with age/skill appropriate training accessible to all (rather than team tournament based player selection).  Where soccer fails (as do most other youth sports) is in keeping the less talented players continuing to play until they fully developed.  Lots of kids drop off after U-12, so we miss a lot of late bloomers.  I'm glad to hear Skip is thinking about that.  Seems like a good person to lead the development of both the organization and the game. 

  6. James Madison, January 13, 2022 at 5:51 p.m.

    I like Mr Gilbert's apparent recogniton that youth players don't necessarily want to play pro or even college or high school, but just want to play.  I think we who are involved in youth soccer need to do more to create a lifelong devotion to the game as something to exerience both as a fn and as a player for a combination of exercise and fun.

  7. humble 1, January 14, 2022 at 11:57 a.m.

    Spoken like a true businessman.  USYS is at its core an organization of pay-to-play soccer clubs and related leagues. Clubs pay the fees, clubs are served. My son has been playing soccer now for a decade, I've seen it first hand.  He has played exstensively in USYS and UCS clubs in leagues in several states.  To say that developing referees is a 'softer area' - is a case-in-point.  We are in the middle of a referee crisis because of this attitude.  Players, parents and referees are the three pillars of soccer in every great soccer nation ex-USA where much of youth soccer is coached by parents.  Here the USA we have a professional coaches for much of our youth, but without the players, parents and refs, they have nothing.  For the clubs that charge $300-$600 per year, and they exist, instead of $3000-$6000, that there is always a parent or 'friend' of parent coach.  Recruiting, identifying and developing referees has to a be pillar of 'youth' focused soccer organization.  More on parent coaches.  I, a person with almost zero soccer experience was the 'volunteer' coach at so called 'youth club' while many more experienced soccer mom's and dads looked on, all because organizations like USYS do not encourage clubs to seek qualified parent engagement.  Failing to understand and prioritize recruitment, identification/qualification and development of parents and referees to support youth clubs is a large reason that the largest so called youth soccer organzation in the world does a relatively poor job of producing world class talent.  I acklowlege, maybe things have improved over time, at least this is what I am told, and that here in the U.S. soccer is a business first, even the youth side.  All good.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, January 16, 2022 at 9:55 a.m.

    When I was involved in the early 90s, the club officials didn't have a clue as to what good soccer was or how to develop youth. There was knowledge at the very top of USYSC, but parents ran the clubs and had their own agendas that didn't include developing players. This was before the rise of pay to play soccer. At the time, team parents hired "professional" coaches who worked independently rather than organized together as a club. Foreign accents earned more pay.

    I don't know if the problem still exists, but I think the obsession with winning meaningless youth matches is still retarding player development.

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