Elitism and arrogance at the core of America’s soccer problem

The United States men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 32 years following a 2–1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on October 10. There are some fundamental reasons why no one should be surprised about this failure.

Contrary to what you might think about the sport of soccer in the United States, the USMNT’s inability to qualify for next summer’s World Cup did not create America’s soccer problem — it simply magnified and reiterated the cracks in an already-broken youth system as the result of a billion-dollar soccer federation that doesn’t recognize the economic restraints that make organized soccer in America an elite and privileged sport.

If you follow international soccer and compare the United States men’s team to the soccer played abroad in South America or Europe, it’s blatantly obvious to recognize the lacking quality of talent produced here. What isn’t obvious to recognize is the issue of economic disparity for youth soccer in America and how it’s developed.

Believe it or not, this “unprecedented failure” for the U.S Soccer Federation presents a possible silver-lining, something that American soccer has excessively lacked over generations. The structure of organized youth soccer needs major reforms in order to become more affordable and accessible for kids in diverse, underserved and inner-city communities who can easily find opportunities to climb the soccer ranks.

This is only possible if the people responsible for youth soccer’s expansion in America are willing to think long-term and revolutionary. But that progressive line of thought has lacked tremendously in America’s youth soccer, and it’s something that USSF president Sunil Gulati claims “doesn’t need wholesale changes.”

Last year, U.S-based Guardian journalist Les Carpenter wrote about the systemic flaws of American soccer and went in-depth on how the structure of organized soccer continuously fails to reach the diverse, underserved and inner-city communities due to the unaffordable prices of youth soccer membership across the country.

Carpenter introduces us to Julio Borge, the director of coaching at the Latino Heritage Soccer Club located in Pleasant Hill, California. Borge enjoys traveling to local parks in San Francisco’s East Bay neighborhoods filled with immigrants from Central and South America who organize and play their own matches in liga Latinas. He does this because it’s in these games where he finds the soccer talent that is largely absent from most wealthy, organized leagues, including his own.

The problem, inevitably, comes down to money.

“The soccer is amazing quality,” says Borge, who will sometimes try to recruit players from the ligas Latinas for his teams. But with a cost of $1,395 a year, which he uses to cover coaches, fields, insurance and officials, he knows most won’t afford to play on his team. He can occasionally offer a scholarship to a player if someone donates the money to do so, but there is never enough for the children whose families hover above the poverty level.
“In my area, we are missing a ton of these kids,” he says. “A lot of coaches don’t have time to see everybody. It’s expensive to try out for the big programs, so many don’t even go after the opportunity.”

Even with some basic assistance from scholarships, the disconnect for the families and parents of these inner-city youth players runs much deeper, Carpenter explains. Factors such as not being able to travel to a match when the kid’s parents are working or not having an email account to receive team announcements are overlooked, but usually serve as common reasons why the opportunities falls through.

“They drop out of the program and then what happens?” he continues. “They have burned the bridge back to their old club by leaving, and aren’t welcome back. They drop out and drift away and we lose them and that’s terrible because they were really, really talented.”

Nick Lusson, the director of NorCal Premier Soccer Foundation, an organization that tries to grow soccer in California’s underserved communities, tells Carpenter that he watched a group of players from the poor areas of East Bay and Fresno dismantle a team of mostly upper-income San Francisco-area college players. “For a few minutes, the college players controlled the game until their untrained opponents deciphered their system, and then ripped it apart by half-time,” said Lusson. The “untrained” team won the game with ease by the second half.

Carpenter writes that many in organized youth soccer will agree that when a young skilled player on scholarship (through a “pay-to-play” program) goes to a wealthy community league where coaches insist on team-play, that kid’s creativity is stripped away instead of being embraced and honed in on for having an imaginative play-style. “A message is delivered: conform or leave.”

So, when we see the U.S men’s national team fail to qualify for the past two Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, we shouldn’t be surprised. We should be embarrassed and come to understand that is what happens when a resourceful and powerful soccer federation fails to make the youth soccer growth process more open and inclusive at the most basic and local levels.

We see this in Germany where their governing body of the sport, the DFB, has a mentality that “football should be affordable for everyone and everyone should be able to play football.” That’s why it costs so little for anyone to play there. Because a grassroots effort for finding quality players will uncover the best talent and make the most effective strides in using its resources to grow, maintain and prosper that talent. It’s a reason why Germany’s brand of soccer sits at the top of the international game. The people in charge were able to look themselves in the mirror, identify the root problems and make rapid changes to the structure of their player outreach and development systems.

There’s a specific mentality that goes along with this innovative process, and it’s one that’s lacking here in the United States because of the sport’s commercialized efforts and rigid, traditional system. As a result, U.S Soccer is better at accessing the best payers rather than the best players.

In a resourceful, diverse and mega-rich country where 78% of teenagers aged 12 to 17 consider themselves soccer fans (19% higher than that of the NFL and 34% higher than NBA, according to a study conducted by Simmons Research on American teenagers) there is simply no excuse for why the U.S should not be a top contender in its own continent. This age group represents the next generation of soccer players and fans in the United States.

While the U.S adult soccer fanbase increased 34%, from 59 million in 2010 to 79 million in 2016, the number of youths who played soccer (aged 6–12) dropped 10% from 5.6 million in 2008 to 5 million in 2013. These numbers were found in a 2015 Aspen Institute study which presented a significant decline in youth sports participation in America as a whole.

But keeping soccer participation and opportunity under the light, this brings us to the ever-more significant factors that wealth and class ultimately play in the sport’s structure in America. That same Aspen study found that 35% of 6–12 year-olds who participated in soccer belong to households that earn at least $100K annually, 16% higher than households that make $25K-49.9K, the second largest group.

The entire foundation of U.S Soccer’s approach to make the sport more affordable and accessible, including its “pay to play” philosophy, needs to be restructured, and much of that starts with stopping the re-election of Gulati, who fails to see that American soccer has a fundamental issue in accessing talent which goes far beyond “the ball being two inches wide or two inches in.”