Soccer has come a long way in the United States. We’ve gone from a time when most people didn’t even know it existed, to seeing people wearing soccer jerseys everywhere in public. However, it is without question that we have much longer to go.
As advanced of a nation as we are, with as many resources that we have, and with as many kids as we have playing soccer, it would only make sense that we are producing top-level players. But we aren’t. The men’s national team is nothing to write home about – we work really hard and occasionally exceed expected tournament or match results, but we can’t win on a regular basis nor have any top class players. The MLS is only an above-average league where top players only come to retire and live the good life. And lastly, the women’s national team – despite our recent World Cup victory – has been on the decline for several years.
Why is this?
Access. There is a lack of access in American soccer. On multiple levels.
Lower-income youth do not have access to play in our middle-to-upper class, pay to play model. Players living in certain (most) geographical areas do not have access to academies or ODP (Olympic Development Program) or professional teams. Players who want to strive for higher levels of play – and have potential to become great players - don’t know where or how to access it. Our higher levels of soccer – whether it be college, professional, or simply higher-level youth – do not know how to access these players. Lower-tier professional teams (or potential professional teams) do not have access to gaining larger notoriety or success through promotion in the league structure.
Combining all of these together creates the hardly-improving, underachieving level of soccer in the United States. It needs to change. But how?
Total revamp of youth soccer from the top down.
Yeah, yeah. USSF recently came out with small-sided and birth year mandates. What took so long? And it is hardly a difference maker. It is going to take more than creating an environment where undereducated coaches will have to get creative to screw up the development of young players. It is going to take strategic, thorough, systematic change to really improve our level of soccer.
To say we have players falling through the cracks is a massive understatement. We have more cracks than an overweight plumbers’ convention. It’s a wonder we find anyone at all to play on our national team (oh wait – they all grew up in Germany). There is no system in place to ensure that we find every possible player. It’s just a big random mess – maybe someone will luckily stumble upon a good player, maybe not. We need a way to ensure that no kid gets missed, every player gets seen.
The academy (and ECNL) system is not a solution. It’s a joke. It’s a glorified version of what’s always been around and a cause of enhanced political fighting amongst youth clubs. It’s a money making machine for teams like Chicago Fire who do absolutely nothing to develop players, then exploit local kids at $100 a pop so that they can pick and choose players who maybe happen to end up being decent.
How about a mandate for MLS, NASL, USL, and NWSL teams to create legitimate youth programs that meet certain criteria? Maybe these professional teams should be held accountable and responsible for developing the youth – especially if they are not developing the strength of our leagues through true, open competition.
What about a mandate to state associations to actually utilize ODP (or something like it)? And a mandate to clubs that they need to comply with such programs – like allow kids to participate regardless of scheduling conflicts or personal agendas. Perhaps the states should actually implement some sort of consistent structure that carries into a consistent regional, then national level. It shouldn’t be just an extra pay check for a few egocentric coaches who like to go on occasional paid-for trips.
Instead of mandating small sided games, how about a mandate restricting a club’s ability to cut players? Or have a program that gives all players an opportunity to get better with quality coaches, regardless of how much money they have or what local club they play for?
The bottom line is this: we need to make a conscious, concerted effort to provide easy access for all of our players to move up the ladder, and easy access for the ladder to find all of our players. The cracks need to be filled. The countries that have made true progress at the national team level implemented programs to fix these very problems. This massive, confusing, random cluster isn’t working for us, so we need to change it.
The federation, MLS, and NWSL need to start being proactive and creative. Start thinking outside the box and stop making excuses (like geography or money). If we want to improve, we need a system that identifies everyone, develops them, and provides a means for them to move up the ladder. It’s a long-term game. Stop worrying about Jurgen Kilnsmann’s performance and start worrying about youth development. If we do that, the national team coach’s job will become an easy gig ten years from now.