The history of youth soccer in the United States is a little fuzzy, but goes back to the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. Soccer was considered the sport of liberals and socialists and the first youth leagues were popular among immigrants & runners. Games were played on public school grounds on Saturdays, and practices were held wherever a patch of grass (or dirt) was available. It would be decades before soccer became the most popular youth participation activity in the United States.
In 1974, the United States Youth Soccer Association (U.S. Youth Soccer or USYSA) was formed. By no coincidence, at the same time, the United States Soccer Football Association dropped “Football” from its name, to become US Soccer. USYSA was built on the foundation of volunteerism. Soccer fees were low and the sport was accessible to everyone, from every demographic. The modest fees were going to uniforms and fields, with a little going to USYSA.
It wasn’t until 1996 when I first heard of someone in recreational youth sports (“recreational” refers to ANY club that does not feed players directly into a professional club) getting paid to do what was done – up til then – by volunteers.
In 1996, I was coaching with an Orlando area soccer club. At their general meeting, on the table was the suggestion to pay the club Registrar. The club was growing fast and registration was a daunting task. The club registrar was responsible for registering players, creating player passes and organizing the paperwork for submission to the league and FYSA – all usually within a 2 week period. Nobody on the board disagreed that the task was painstaking, but EVERYONE agreed that they didn’t want to do it. One person on the board (a former club registrar) was willing to do the job for a percentage of the fees collected. A vote was taken, the registrar was “hired” and the precedent was set.
Within a season or two, ALL clubs in the area (and probably the nation) were paying their registrars. Not long after that, I was coaching at another club, sitting in on another board meeting, and again, there was another vote on the table to pay a volunteer. This time it was the club’s president. It was a small wage, for all of the hours they were putting in (like a part-time job). It passed. The very next year at the same club, there was yet another vote on the table to actually hire for a new position that many youth soccer clubs were filling – “Director of Coaching”. This individual would collect a weekly paycheck equal to $30,000 per year. There was a lot of discussion, but – per the club president (who had just started collecting his own paycheck) – this seemed to be the direction youth soccer was headed. The vote was close, but it passed and a $30k/annually Coaching Director was added to the expanding payroll.
As youth soccer grew in popularity, and about the same time that Registrars started getting paid, USYSA had instructed their state associations to suggest to their local clubs that they start incorporating a Coaching Director/Director of Coaching (CD/DoC) into their organizations. The CDs were to be the direct link between their club’s youth coaches and the state organization – which was influenced by U.S. Soccer, which adheres to the guidelines of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association – English: International Federation of Association Football): Earth’s governing body of soccer. The job of the Coaching Director was to pass-on and implement directives and strategies for the betterment of American soccer, as a whole. Coaching Directors were (usually) significantly experienced youth coaches with state or national youth coaching licenses who were supposed to be mentors and teachers to the other coaches. At first, CDs were paid like the club president (part-time job), but somewhere along the line the job became a “professional” coaching position, thereby warranting a professional salary (30k to 50k+).
As Coaching Directors became more popular in clubs, US Soccer and the State Youth Soccer organizations gained more influence in local club operations. They (the CDs and governing bodies) began requiring better equipment and coaching tools for their coaches. They wanted every coach to be provided balls, cones and other equipment – paid for with club funds. The CD’s also wanted their “competitive” team coaches (there are different levels of recreational youth soccer competition) to have coaching licenses. Since licenses cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, most volunteer coaches balked… so most clubs just agreed to pay for their licensing. Very quickly, coaching directors were given their own budgets to work with, and soon thereafter, the more experienced coaches began receiving paychecks at local clubs as well. The idea behind paying their experienced coaches was that the club risked losing them to another club that might already be paying theirs.
[quote]Within a couple of years, soccer fees doubled – and then doubled again, as youth soccer got “organized”. Soccer club membership fees were going to uniforms, facilities, registration, USYSA, State Youth Soccer Associations, administration, coaches, field maintenance and park facilities maintenance (bathrooms, building, lights).[/quote]
Club registration numbers continued to increase and there became a need for larger athletic complexes, with lighting to accommodate later practice times. The growing number of teams warranted assigning Coaching Directors to each gender, which of course warranted hiring a Technical Director (TD) to lead the CDs. TDs usually have years of experience coaching and/or as Coaching Directors, and have National A or B soccer coaching licenses. Of course, since a TD is MUCH more qualified than a CD, they are deserving of a salary commensurate with their title, experience and responsibilities. This salary ranges from $60k to $100k.
Today, the costs to play soccer in the United States continue to increase as clubs “improve”, but has the development programs of America’s youth soccer players improved?
The Sad Truth
Many American youth soccer clubs claim to emulate or simulate European style football clubs – and first impressions would certainly lead you to believe it. Most teams at every age group have PRACTICE uniforms (sometime 2 or even 3) as well as multiple game-day jerseys for home and away games. Other accessories like equipment bags and club branded balls finish off the picture, but that’s where ALL similarities to the European clubs stop… and the fees start.
The fees parents pay for their kids to play soccer starts out at hundreds per year (under 8 years old) and gradually increases into thousands per year (u-14 and up). Older, more experienced players need developed, more experienced coaches. Better coaches cost more money. Better teams also have to travel farther to find comparable competition, so those fees are just rolled into the overall package that the parents pay.
So what are we actually paying for? In Europe, nearly every youth club either feeds to a professional club team, or feeds an Academy which feeds a professional club team. What do our youth soccer clubs feed? College: The NEXT pay-for-play venue. However, if you consider all the money that you paid into soccer in your child’s lifetime, you could have paid for their college twice over.
In Europe, youth soccer clubs have a system of identifying good players and have incentives to develop youth players into professionals, by way of “Transfer Fees”.
[su_quote cite=”Definition of Transfer” author=”Wikipedia”]Sometime after the Football League was formed in 1888, the Football League decided that restrictions had to be placed on the ability of richer clubs to lure players from other clubs to prevent the league being dominated by a handful of clubs. From the start of the 1893–94 season onwards, once a player was registered with a Football League club, he could not be registered with any other club, even in subsequent seasons, without the permission of the club he was registered with. It applied even if the player’s annual contract with the club holding his registration was not renewed after it expired. The club was not obliged to play him and, without a contract, the player was not entitled to receive a salary. Nevertheless, if the club refused to release his registration, the player could not play for any other Football League club.
Football League clubs soon came to realize that they could demand and earn a transfer fee from any other Football League club as consideration for agreeing to release or transfer the player’s registration.[/su_quote]
For over 100 years, the transfer fee has been a way to protect smaller clubs – who might be really good at developing players – from wealthier clubs who would just steal those players away with a large salary, after all of the hard work is done. Today, transfer fees are widely recognized as a reward to clubs that are good at developing youth players into professional athletes. The transfer fee is a payment for training and developing players. For instance: Aside from being one of the top professional teams in the world, Ajax of Amsterdam is one of the planet’s top producers of professional soccer talent.
The Ajax Youth Academy has earned millions and millions of dollars in transfer fees over the years by training young players in the Ajax method of play. By contrast, the United States has a system of training that is financed by middle class and upper middle-class parents who are in no way qualified to recognize good training, so they’ll pay whatever they’re asked to pay, and blindly follow the club’s lead.
Our youth system appears on the outside to be organized and committed to excellence. The problem is that this system is not training, developing and molding young soccer players to one day lead America to a World Cup victory. (*Read: Why Your Son Will Never Be a Professional Athlete for more info) Instead, it’s doing the exact opposite! The greed that has permeated our country’s youth soccer programs is holding up the development of our players by requiring every person who wants to play, to pay OUTRAGEOUS fees that get more and more expensive as the players get older. If you leave out the horrible training and overwhelming payrolls, all that’s left is 4 hours a week of toe taps on the ball, dribbling through cones, shooting on empty nets, and a game on Saturday. When children are the most flexible and eager to learn, our clubs actually LIMIT how much practice a team can have – usually to 2 nights a week – to keep field space available for more teams to “practice”. At this pace, it would mean that our players would be in their 40’s and 50’s when they finally have the knowledge and experience to compete against European and South American teams for the World Cup trophy. Even the US Men’s National Team Coach, Jürgen Klinsmann recruits players from European professional leagues, because OUR SYSTEM SUCKS!
A great example of the American soccer system failing a player is Rise and Shine: The Jay Demerit story. After being a standout athlete his entire childhood and playing soccer in high school & college, and then training full time with the Chicago Fire Academy he still wasn’t good enough to play in America’s professional soccer league, the MLS. So at 21 years old, he actually went to Europe to learn how to play the game. Within 4 years of moving to England, Jay Demerit was named to the US Men’s National Team.
Today (December, 2012), many soccer clubs have peaked their expansions and are actually starting to consolidate or merge. Some clubs are so payroll heavy that they cannot afford to adequately maintain their facilities anymore. Fields aren’t irrigated, bathrooms aren’t cleaned, light bulbs aren’t replaced on the field lights and the once new golf carts and 4 wheelers that buzzed around on practice nights and game days have low tires and ripped seats. The perimeters of the fields are littered with broken goals and benches. Bleachers are in disrepair. Groundskeepers that are needed to keep the bathrooms clean, replace burned out light blubs, repair goals & fences, and replace goal netting have been fired to maintain the outrageous salaries of unnecessary TDs, CDs and ill-qualified coaches.
In the United States, we have one type of youth soccer – recreational. It’s dressed up with nice uniforms (for coaches and kids), big sports complexes and bright lights, with every intention of looking like more, but the sad truth is, it’s all just for fun. Your son will NEVER develop into a professional athlete playing in this environment.
*Note: For more information on the failure of the American youth soccer system, read: Pay for Play Paradox, and Why Your Son Will Never Be a Professional Athlete.
Mike Slatton is the Chief Editor of the Soccer Mom Manual and a 25+ year youth soccer coach.