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Become a Professional Soccer Player

Become a Professional Soccer Player
Written June 4th, 2012 by Mike Slatton

The Dream

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.  vending machineAs 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 areas with professional (MLS) and semi-professional (NASL, USL) 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.

Case Study

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.

Dominicans are considered to be the best baseball players in the world – ahead of the U.S., Cuba and Japan.  Why?  Is the Dominican Republic more prosperous, with better equipment and tools?

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.

Jay Demerit

Jay Demerit of the U.S. Men’s National Team is the premier example of what happens when you rely on the American system of athlete training .  Demerit played soccer in high school and college and even spent a year with the Chicago Fire’s Premier development team, but all of that still wasn’t enough to get him drafted into the MLS.  The American program that he wanted to play in wasn’t good enough to train him. So he did what he should have done sooner – he went to Europe.

Isn’t it ironic that America won’t buy the products it produces?

Within just 3 years of playing in England, Jay Demerit was named to the U.S. Men’s National Team.  After 6 years in England, Jay “retired” from English soccer to play in the league that he wasn’t good enough for 6 years earlier.

The Solution

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 25+ year soccer coach and the Chief Editor of the Soccer Mom Manual
 


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Comments (17)

  1. Tyler says:

    Im a 14 year old male, that will be playing at a little high school in a town in indiana. I know that it is very hard to get pro, but it is my dream. Any advice?

    • Editor says:

      Tyler,

      The easy and best things you can do are:

      1. Play EVERY DAY. Touch the ball every day. Juggle, practice dead-balls, dribble through parks. Know the ball. You don’t control the ball; the ball responds to your touch. The more you touch the ball, the better you will know how it will respond.

      2. Watch soccer on TV and YouTube. See what they do and how they do it. You’ll notice that the game is more about passing and running than dribbling and scoring.

      3. Talk with your feet. Actions speak louder than words. If you play hard, practice hard and train hard, people will tell YOU that you’re going to be a pro. You won’t have to tell THEM.

      4. Get to know your local professional players or ex-pros. Let them mentor you and emulate them. Act like them and you will become one of them. Your local club probably has one or two coaches that played professionally.

      Don’t be a “wanna-be”. Be a “gonna-be”. Send me a note when you sign your first pro or semi-pro contract, and I’ll write a story on you.

      Mike Slatton
      Chief Editor, The Soccer Mom Manual

      • Noel says:

        i am currently 17yrs old (male) and i play with a club and my high school. i have been told by alot of coaches that have watched me play that i have a lot of potential. i wasnt born in the usa so i started playing soccer in a west african country until i moved to the us at the age of 13.one thing that i have struggled with over the years is that i loose my confidence very easily which greatly affects my game. back in my home country i played almost everyday for atleast 2hrs. i and my friends played for fun, we tried to emulate what we saw the pros do on tv but we never realy got to play on an organized team in a leageu(because of the poor system for youth athletics in the country.so only playedon a team when i came to the us for the first time.i have learned and gotten as much experience as i could on the field.i want to ask if you can please give me some advice on how to stay confident especially when things are not going my way and how can i tell if the team in which am playing is beneficial to my growth as a soccer player or if its just a waste of time.i hope to a professional football player one day.

        • Editor says:

          Noel,

          At 17, it’s time to take the leap. The time for preparation has ended and it’s time to ACT. You need to find all the professional and semi-professional teams in a radius that you are comfortable driving and go to their OPEN TRYOUTS. Start with teams in the NPSL, which is the 4th division of the American professional soccer system (http://www.npsl.info/). Then check out the USL and NASL. Find the office phone numbers of the teams in your area of comfort, and call them to find out when they’ll be holding open tryouts. Then GO. Every team has open tryouts at least once a year. Most of these teams charge a fee, for no other reason than for you to prove to them that you are truly a serious player. These fees are anywhere from $75 to $300. There’s a good chance you will not make any team at the tryouts, but you’ll get good feedback from the coaches and directors holding the tryouts, and you’ll be able to use that information to improve and prepare for the next tryout.

          Mike Slatton
          Chief Editor, The Soccer Mom Manual

      • Laura Ross says:

        Can you recommend a summer training program or camp for a 14 yr old boy who is serious about soccer?

        • Editor says:

          Laura, Serious and talented are 2 different things. Camp will benefit someone who is committed and has the athletic prowess to take advantage of what is offered. However, no amount of training is going to help a child with no natural abilities. The BEST programs are going to be expensive. Check out IMG Academies in Bradenton, FL. They develop professional athletes in multiple sports. A more budget minded approach would be college promoted or hosted camps. You’re child will not get great instruction, but he’ll play with better players all week long.

          Another option is NorthWest Soccer Camps (http://www.nwsoccer.org/Home.asp). This camp has helped a number of internationally recognized soccer players improve their skills and learn good training habits.

          Regardless of what camp you choose, every player who is committed to playing at a high level needs to be training at least 20 hours a week. That includes strength training, speed training, endurance and ball work. Ball work alone will only make you a good recreational player. Only practicing 2 days a week with your team will only make you as good as the weakest player on the team.

          Success in any sport requires a lifetime commitment to it. It requires obsession. Once any person becomes obsessed with an idea, then nothing will quell it but completion or accomplishment. If your son has other hobbies or activities they’re involved in, then they may not be as committed as they think they are.

        • John Bigwood says:

          Hi Laura,

          I worked with Jeff Johnson he now has his own camps named onesoccerschools. With my experience of working in the U.S.on Soccer Camps. I found this one the best.

      • bobo says:

        I have to disagree with you on one topic. if you watch the World Cup games that are going on now most of the players wanna pass the ball to the player who can dribble such as Lionel Messi, Shaqiri from Switzerland, Cristiano Ronaldo and etc. the other players are always looking for that player who can dribble with a ball and has amazing control because they don’t have the confidence in themselves. so it is about dribbling and having master ball control

        • Editor says:

          Boris, I respectfully disagree with you. The Barca model calls for a DESIGNATED FINISHER. Messi is THE FINISHER. That is his role and the strategy for the team. You will never make me believe that any player on Barca or any other top-tier professional level team lacks confidence. The Barca strategy is to draw attention and opponents away from their finisher, and then feed him the ball. Only a few teams actually use this strategy, and when they do, they end up turning one man (Messi) into a deity of sorts. No doubt that Messi has great ball control, but he also has great CHEMISTRY with his teammates.

           

          There are others with the same amount of control and vision (Wondolowski of the US, for instance) who could play a similar role for any team, but a clear strategy for scoring and chemistry are the most often overlooked components when building teams. If you watch most teams participating in the World Cup (Algeria, Uruguay, Chile, USA, Costa Rica for instance), it appears to be every-man-for-himself. There is very little chemistry and no real plan for scoring. Real Madrid, Barcelona and other top tier professional club teams have a clear path to the goal, and it usually goes directly through a designated finisher. Messi is that man for Barca… and even Argentina.

           

          America is decades away from the designated finisher strategy, because everyone wants to be the guy who finally kicks the ball into the net. Everyone wants to finish the goal, but no American coach has the education to even recognize the DESIGNATED FINISHER as a strategy. And if it were an obvious strategy, it wouldn’t work, because everyone would just cover the finisher… which is why you never hear anyone talking about it.

           

          As a youth coach, it’s always my goal that everyone on the team score at least one goal during every season. I rarely fail, no matter what the age group or league, because we use a designated finisher. Half to half, that person usually changes, but it makes scoring a lot easier, because the other team is covering the goal, while WE are not trying to get the ball into the goal at all. WE are actually trying to get the ball to just one person, and then that person has to just poke the ball into the net.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this.

  3. Cara Ferris says:

    Thank you for this article. It’s brutally honest, which is what more American parents need to hear. I am a single mom with two boys, ages 13 and 9. I am only now starting to realize and understand how much time, not to mention an insane amount of money, I have wasted participating in American youth soccer clubs.

    My children are extremely athletic, very tall (my 13 year old is 6’1 with a size 13 shoe) and are very good players. They practice every day on their own whenever they aren’t playing with their teams. Other than move to Europe, which I would in a heartbeat if I knew how to get over there and live versus just visit, what do you suggest is the best way to get them noticed by professional clubs in Europe?

    Also, I was looking through the website http://soccercampsinternational.com
    They offer camps in Europe for two weeks, but I’m incredibly leery about sending my kid over to Europe by himself to a camp that has no individual vested interest in him, and also bc I don’t want to be another “desperate soccer mom” who falls victim to more American “dreams and lies” that require an insanely large amount of money and won’t even open up the first door to authentic opportunities. I mean let’s face it, any parent can spend the money, whether their kid is good or not, to go to a highly recognized camp. In your opinion, would this international camp be worth the investment and travel for my boys? Thanks!

    • Editor says:

      Cara,

      Our club is managed by a former NASL (1970’s/80’s) professional player, and one of our coaches is the President of the USL. I’ve had multiple conversations on the subject of what’s necessary to become a pro soccer player in the U.S. today, and what I’ve determined is that: If your kids are bound and determined to play professional soccer in the U.S., and you are fully supportive of this, you should move to a USL Pro city or an MLS city and get them involved with their Academy program. The USL is working DIRECTLY with the MLS to develop talent if for no other reason than to take advantage of the very lucrative TRANSFER FEES that define soccer as the international game of billionaires. The USL Pro and MLS Academies don’t cost anything, but your boys need to be good enough to make the squad. If they aren’t, do worry, because there’s always college. If your kids have played for any length of time at a competitive level, they can get a soccer scholarship SOMEWHERE.

  4. Amiin says:

    I’m 16 year old guy, very crazy about being a pro soccer player i just watch everyday on the tv when the athletes playing the games and i always try to copy with the way that they play, it works for me, Sometimes i play with my friends and they told me that i could play well if i were stay in europe. And i know that i can play like them if i work hard, practice well etc. I’m expecting to come to the U.S in january 2015. So what i have to do first when i come to U.S? Some advise please

    • Editor says:

      First, why are you coming to the US? Many American parents wish they could get their players to Europe, for no other reason than to expose their athletes to better training and an environment that is more supportive of player development. However, it’s my understanding that it’s VERY competitive to become a professional footballer in Europe, and getting “discovered” by a professional club is difficult.

      You have a dilemma: You want to play professional soccer, but you need European training to make it in the US. Most American soccer clubs are ill equipped to develop professional level soccer athletes. That goes for the USL, NASL and MLS. Now that doesn’t mean that you aren’t already good enough for their programs, but understand that your growth will all but STOP once you join one of these programs.

      You’d be better off staying and playing in Europe until you’re done growing, while developing your skills in a more immersive footballing environment.

      However, if you are set on coming and playing here, be prepared to travel the country, going to open tryouts of USL, NASL and MLS clubs. Your best bet is to get on with a USL club that has a close relationship with a Major League Soccer club. The USL is the UN-official farm system of the MLS, so your easiest way into the professional game would be the USL. http://www.uslsoccer.com/

  5. Farhan says:

    Hello, I am 21 years old and I play for a 2nd division club here in Bangladesh. As you know my country is not a country to develop athletes. And my dream is to play for top tier clubs. What would you suggest me? I was planning to come to USA but then I read your article. My country is very bad at soccer and they would concede 12 goals within 30 mins to USA! So that explains .. now please advice me something. Thank you

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