U.S. Soccer Dysfunction: Elitism in the Beautiful Game
Soccer elitism in the United States is leaving too much talent wasting on the bench.
The United States Men’s national soccer team has advanced farther than they have before to-date. The Women’s team seems to be able to string together dominant teams time and time again (Olympics, World Cups). Despite this apparent success, many seemed to find irony in that Ghana is the team that knocked us out (population 7% of US). Not to take anything away from the nation of Ghana or its team . The irony is strictly about shortcomings of soccer in the United States. I can sum it up in one word: Elitism.
Soccer as it’s developed in the United States is a sport that’s out of reach for most families and children. Club and tournament fees make it very expensive to play on a competitive level. Time and travel commitments for select level teams add to the cost for families who can’t take the time of from work. With practices often at 5 or 5:30 pm, especially for younger select teams, many families just cannot get off work, pickup their kids, and get them to practice by 5 or 5:30 pm. And these are just some of the issues at the club level.
The national club soccer programs are equally infected with elitist hurdles. All very similar to the ones mentioned above. The Olympic Development Program, which ostensibly, would be identifying and developing National team players, is a joke. Structurally, it makes it impossible to identify or develop the best talent. Selection in ODP is based on a tryout system, with dates and location information not actively publicized or distributed. The info is there, but if a family doesn’t know it’s there, they won’t look for it. There is no scouting component to ODP, so only families and players tightly tied into the already exclusionary club system will be aware and tryout. Additionally, tryout selection is a single evening affair for each cut, with extremely subjective criteria. Oh wait, there are not publicized selection criteria, its strictly the will of the coaches. So from the beginning ODP is flawed. And this is even before addressing the financial and time commitment costs.
High School soccer coaches tend to be drawn from the ranks of club soccer coaches. Thus, they carry over the same flaws from the clubs into the high schools. In my son’s high school district, I was driving through a neighborhood, and saw some boys playing soccer in the street after the high school bus dropped them off. I was stunned because I had never seen them at tryouts or anything else, but here they were playing soccer in the street. I was sure, they must be from the neighboring district, and I was just mixed up geographically. Stopping to ask them, the boys confirmed they were in the same district as my son. Why did these boys not come out to tryouts? What recruitment efforts did the school make? How many other boys were there in the school, who also could’ve but didn’t come out?
At the high school, certain sports actively search out boys, and invite them to tryouts. Wrestling, Cross Country. Our school holds many State and National wrestling and cross-country titles. At freshman orientation night, neither the girls nor boys soccer programs were represented. Basketball, football, golf, cross-country, wrestling, baseball, volleyball (you get the picture) were all there. If soccer wasn’t actually being elitist, the net effect is the same. Only the kids who were already committed to trying out would be motivated to run down the information needed.
Similar problems exist at the college and professional level. Additional problems also exist, such as: lack of loyalty within clubs to their players, no viable avenues to play outside of the club structure, and diverse, non-monolithic state and national organizations.
Things that need to be fixed: Implement an active recruitment process for all levels of play, including Recreational. Lose the attitude that kids should feel blessed to play at a certain club. Create systems that address the high cost of club and tournament fees. Develop other avenues of play (integrate into comprehensive tutoring & after school programs) so that the simple act of getting kids to and from practice isn’t a filter. Those would be a start.