The day your son was born, you had dreams. Heck, if you’re like me, those dreams started a decade or more before they were even conceived. As time goes on however, those dreams (and subsequently, your son’s goals) have been dashed to the harsh reality that the odds to become a professional soccer player in the United States are as probable as being crushed by a vending machine at a vegan market.
Europe vs America
In the United States, nearly every adult over 30 will tell you that “it takes luck to become a professional athlete”. If you’ve analyzed the European systems of athlete training, you know that luck has NOTHING to do with becoming a professional soccer player. Saying you have to be lucky to become a professional athlete is like saying you need to be lucky to become a doctor, engineer or scientist. Soccer – like law, medicine, mechanical engineering, computer animation, etc. – is a skill that is learned through intensive training and real life experience. Like most trade schools and colleges, not everyone is cut out to be a professional athlete. Just like any other learning environment, there are drop-outs and fail-outs all along the way. Even after the education is acquired, some players are still better than others, just like some teachers are better than others and some lawyers are better than others.
Professional coaches will tell you that the average athlete needs to train about twenty hours a week to become professional and to remain competitive. When you break it down, that means that to get all of the training you need to become “professional”, it’ll take 8,ooo to 10,000 hours. And there lies OUR problem.
Even if American youth soccer coaches knew WHAT to teach our players and HOW to train them, they’re still limited to just three hours of training a week (average). That equals just 105 hours per year (35 weeks) and only 1,000 hours per decade . Since a player requires 6,ooo to 10,000 hours of training to learn the skills and develop the reflexes he needs to play soccer for a living, that means it will take a player in the American youth soccer club system (at any level) about 100 YEARS to get that training.
You ARE dreaming if you think your kid can become a professional athlete in America!
What’s Being Done
Slowly, local clubs in cities with professional (MLS, NASL, USL) and semi-professional (NPSL) teams are affiliating and integrating their youth programs with the big league teams, but for the most part, this is just a program to build up the local fan base and sell tickets (of course, without fans, you don’t have professional sports) – practice schedules are still aggressively limited to just a couple of hours a week, and the parents must still pay for their kids to play. The fastest way to get American Soccer over the pay-for-play crutch and turn it into a super-power may be the European system of promotion and relegation (see article: “Why America NEEDS Promotion and Relegation“).
Europe has geographic systems of training, identification and referral that channel talented youth players into professional club Academies, assuring that they have the best of the best athletes playing at the highest level possible. By contrast, the U.S. has a haphazard system that requires players and parents to figure it out on their own. There is no system of referral and no incentive for weaker clubs to encourage their better players to play elsewhere. Subsequently, talented players in most clubs are oppressed and overconfident in their abilities, surrounded by a culture of mediocrity and lethargy.
But the problem doesn’t just lie with soccer. It’s that way with EVERY sport: basketball, football, soccer, baseball, hockey. We don’t have true “development” clubs that prepare players to become professionals by the time they’re 16, 17 or 18 years old. We don’t have a system in place that recognizes and recommends players to professional development clubs. Our youth athletic organizations in every sport keep the dream of playing professional sports from ever becoming a goal. Our passive, weak system of training athletes means that countries like the Dominican Republic can dominate the Great American Game – baseball.
The Dominican Republic is a small country sharing half of an island in the Caribbean, with a population of about 10 million people. The United States, by contrast, dominates a continent with 311 million people. Major League Baseball has about 928 Americans playing in the league, or .000298% of the American population. The Dominican Republic by comparison, has 127 representatives in “the Show”, or .00127% of their population. If both of these training programs were equal, the number of Dominicans playing in Major League Baseball would be about 30. Instead there are 127! In fact, a full 20% of professional baseball players at any level in the U. S. are DOMINCAN! The American population is 31 times larger than the Dominican population, and in theory, should be able to produce enough home grown talent to produce a proportionate number of players for the league. For some reason though, the Dominican Republic is 400% more likely to produce high level professional baseball players than we are.
What is it about this little country’s baseball program that makes it so much better than anyone else?
Of course, Major League Soccer is even worse. Of the 540 players in the MLS (2011 stats), only 294, or 54% are American. To add more salt to our youth soccer wounds, the majority of those Americans actually learned the game abroad – in Mexico, Europe or elsewhere. An American who learned the game in America and plays in the MLS, is an anomaly – and is in a lower wage bracket, for obvious reasons: Youth soccer practices are usually limited to just 3 hours a WEEK (recreational teams are limited to just 1 day per week), with one game on Saturday. Practice times for teams are limited by clubs to allow more teams access to the fields. More teams in the club means more money for the club.
So how do we fix it?
Look into the mission statement of any American youth soccer club, and you will see statements similar to this “… to provide a fun and safe environment to play soccer”. To state anything else would be deceptive, because our clubs and coaches are not educated or prepared to actually train athletes to become professional. Insinuations by soccer club directors may indicate that your son can become a professional soccer player, but these are just to keep the dream alive, and the money flowing.
The real reason that clubs don’t develop players is that there is no incentive. In Europe they have what’s known as “transfer fees” (see “Development” in “Where Does All the Money Go?”) for professionals and youth players in their academies. In essence, it’s payment for the time and effort a club has put into training a player. Youth clubs in the U.S. have no real incentives for training players, as the professional leagues (MLS, NASL and USL) are mostly removed from the youth programs. Therefore, clubs require payment up front (pay-for-play) in order to operate, which perpetuates the problem and promotes a culture of winning over development.
Since our youth clubs are failing so miserably, colleges and universities have become the crown jewel of pay-for-play systems, as they provide a venue for players to feel like professionals, without really being professionals. The college programs in the United States are even run by youth soccer coaches, many of whom are technical directors and coaches in their local youth clubs. For nearly all American college athletes, their last day in college is the closest they’ll ever come to being professional athletes.
The issue is “training”. U. S. Soccer is ill equipped to train players to play at the highest level. Even the US Men’s coach, Jürgen Klinsmann recruits players for the national team from European professional leagues. The European game is faster and the training for youth players is more focused.
So, if your son wants to play professional soccer, is Europe the only option?
No. There’s also South American countries like Argentina and Brazil. Heck, China is even a viable option now, as they’re pumping millions and millions of yen into their soccer training programs to gain more influence in the soccer world.
If you’re not willing to move, the only other option is to just accept the fact that America’s youth soccer system provides a nice recreational outlet for our children to get some exercise, and learn how to be part of a team. With hard work and self-discipline, they’ll even be able to play in college, where they can get an education in something that will actually pay the bills.
Mike Slatton is a 30+ year youth soccer coach and the Chief Editor of the Soccer Mom Manual