Why “competitive” soccer isn’t so competitive.

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Why “competitive” soccer isn’t so competitive.

In youth soccer’s beginnings, only the most elite soccer athletes played competitive soccer. There was just one “Classic” or “Premier” team per age group, per club, and if you were on one of those teams, you were good. Of course, nobody really knew much about soccer, so the fact that you were actually good at it usually went unnoticed by everyone… except those in the soccer community.

Today, ANYONE can play competitive youth soccer. Soccer clubs have created 3, 4 and sometimes as many as 6 tiers of “competitive” soccer for every single-digit age group, in a half dozen local, state and national leagues.

Yes, NATIONAL youth soccer leagues.

So, while local soccer clubs have 3 to 6 competitive teams per single-digit age group, the recreational leagues average one team per single-digit age group, per club.

Competitive” soccer is now “normal” soccer, with up to 6 competitive teams for every 1 recreational team. 6 to 1.  Doesn’t that seem crazy?  ONE RECREATIONAL TEAM per age group, and 6 competitive teams?  In the grand scheme of soccer development, shouldn’t the recreational teams feed the competitive teams? Aren’t the competitive teams supposed to be the best-of-the-best?

So if everyone’s a “competitive” soccer player, then really, NO ONE is.  And what does that make “recreational” soccer?
(Click here to skip the rant and go straight to the list.)

Competitive soccer money grabMONEY MOTIVATED CLUBS

All it takes to play “competitive” soccer is MONEY, and apparently we Americans have a lot of it.

“Competitive” soccer costs 5 to 10 times more than recreational soccer, but the number of regular season games are about the same.

But even if you’re willing to pay the money to play “competitive” soccer, how many of those “competitive” soccer players will play in the pros?

  ZERO… or darn close to it.

AMERICA’S (lack of) WORLD CLASS SOCCER TALENT
(or:
“What does $5 Billion dollars get you?”

More than half of the English Premier League is comprised of foreign players, yet only 2 Americans actually play in the league, with 2 others sitting the bench. 2 of those players were not even developed in the American youth soccer system, however.  The German Bundesliga is 60% foreign, yet again features only 2 Americans in their league – and both are the offspring of American servicemen born in Germany.

The U.S. has 3 million kids (aged 4 to 18) enrolled in soccer every year, and about half of those kids are playing “competitive” soccer.  In theory, we’re training 1.5 million kids with pro potential RIGHT NOW.  So, why is it that we can only produce ONE WORLD CLASS player every 4-5 years?

WE’RE TRAINING THE WRONG KIDS!

Hispanic kids playing soccer in the streetIt’s common knowledge that pro soccer players in Europe and most industrialized parts of the world are of a lower socioeconomic demographic who see soccer as a way out of poverty.

In theory, American youth soccer competitive programs should be seeking out and training the most qualified and deserving athletes who can most benefit from organized soccer. The side-effect of that would be that we create high level athletes who can compete on the world stage.

We’re training the wrong kids, though. Instead, American youth soccer is FAILING U.S. Soccer by training ONLY kids of high-income earners in our competitive programs, and economically BLOCKING the athletes who could most benefit from a career in sports.

Too Many
Not only are we training the WRONG kids in our “competitive” programs, but we’re training WAY TOO MANY of them.

So, let’s ignore the socioeconomic failures of our current system of development for a moment, and theorize that American soccer is actually doing a great job of developing players for our pro leagues. If “competitive” youth soccer were indeed creating very talented, high performing soccer players, then we need to stop production NOW, because there aren’t enough professional soccer teams for all of the great players we’re producing.

1.5 Million Pros
In theory, our current “competitive” system is training 1.5 million potential professional soccer players (boys and girls), for only 2,000 pro league spots (men and women), that pay an average of $11k annually… that are already FILLED.
There are over 9,000 soccer clubs in the United States, training about 1.5 million “competitive” soccer players – 1.5 million potential professional soccer players… for only 2,000 pro league spots… that earn an average of $11,000 annually.

And where do all of those players go when a pro soccer career doesn’t materialize for them?  You’re witnessing it NOW!

Youth soccer clubs today have MILLION dollar budgets for youth coaches, administrators, directors and consultants,  perpetuating a youth soccer PONZI SCHEME that is forced to create more competitive soccer programs to make way for all of the pro soccer wannabe’s it’s creating.

Competitive Soccer CoachTHE COACH IS MIND-F***ING YOUR KID

Every week – at training and at games – you hear youth soccer coaches yelling at their players to “be more aggressive“, “get your head in the game” or “stop being a pansy“.  Not only are there way too many competitive youth soccer players being coached by way too many unqualified coaches, trying to produce way too many pros, but this system is MIND-F***ING our kids in the meantime.

And the soccer clubs don’t care.

ALL youth soccer should be DEVELOPMENTAL in nature, yet 90% of “competitive” youth soccer coaches are unequivocally UNQUALIFIED to teach potential pros the game of soccer.

Still, we continue to throw money at them.

Competitive youth soccer coaches CONSTANTLY shirk responsibility, blaming the kids for the failings of the system. According to the coach, the reason your kid sucks is because he’s not dribbling through cones in the back yard or running around the block til he pukes.  Perhaps that’s what the high-paid directors and consultants tell them to say.

Apparently, that $2,000 in fees you just paid were little more than season tickets to the sidelines.

“But my kid wants to play in college.”

Well, here’s good news: There is a college team out there for your child. College soccer is not much different than youth “competitive” soccer. You just need to be willing to travel… and hope that you and your child’s coach haven’t completely burned them out on the game before they get to college.

Honestly, though – Why would you waste a perfectly good college experience playing soccer, when there are girls, fraternities, football games, sororities, beer and girls?

*SPOILER ALERT*

Competitive soccer is a MONEY GRAB for soccer clubs. Period.

The majority of youth soccer clubs are registered non-profit organizations, yet coaching, administrator, director and consultant salaries in the largest American youth soccer clubs (NOT affiliated with any pro teams) are hitting & exceeding $1 million annually, yet we’re only producing ONE high level pro every few years?

$20,000,000,000
Nearly 5 BILLION dollars in youth soccer coaching, administrator, director and consultant salaries, training 1.5 million youth soccer players ANNUALLY – to produce ONE HIGH LEVEL PRO every 4 or 5 years.

$20,000,000,000, for 1 good player.

American youth soccer development looks a lot like cancer research… or political pandering: An obvious problem that NEVER gets fixed, because nobody wants to, as long as the money is flowing.

USMNT

Now, you may look at the U.S. Men’s National Team and think that we have a lot of high level pros, but most of those players play in the MLS (equivalent in salary and talent to the English 3rd tier of pro soccer). We currently have 2 players actively participating in the EPL and a couple in the German Bundesliga, but most of them weren’t developed in the American Youth System. Even Brad Guzan, who plays GK for Middlesborough (the 2nd team he’s played for that’s about to be relegated) was a college bench warmer at the U. of South Carolina before becoming an MLS starter. He then went to Aston Villa in the EPL (England, and led them to RELEGATION) to sit the bench for 4 years while he learned to play high level soccer.

WHAT’S THE END GAME?

Soccer clubs make money by charging “coaching and development” fees, but after $5k or $10k of youth soccer related expenses, shouldn’t you see some REAL development? So, WHY IS YOUR KID STILL ON THE “B” (or even “C”) TEAM?!

Really, though:  How can a coach develop a high level soccer player in 3 hours a week , even if they were qualified?

The truth is, the American youth soccer system of player development has NO END GAME – and they don’t want one.  Nearly all of our youth soccer clubs don’t feed a pro team (though some clubs are now affiliated with MLS teams and a few NASL teams), so these clubs and players have no real purpose but to provide a pay check for those that run and work in the club.

That means the $2k or more you’re paying in soccer fees are NOT for developing your athlete, but instead they’re just to keep a past competitive player out of the unemployment line, by giving him a job as a coach, administrator, director or consultant.

… and the American youth “competitive” soccer PONZI SCHEME continues.

If those aren’t clear arguments for not playing competitive soccer, here are…

10 Reasons Why NOT to Play “Competitive” Soccer

  1. BAD COACHING – Oh, so your child’s coach has an “A” license? Ha ha ha ha! Well, U.S. Soccer has just stopped tossing those out like Mardi Gras beads. 99% of “highly qualified” youth soccer coaches have little to NO EXPERIENCE with children, beyond coaching soccer and raising their own kids.
    “Just because you can speak English doesn’t mean that you’re qualified to teach it.  The same goes for soccer. Just because you played or watch soccer on TV, doesn’t mean you’re qualified to teach the game.”
    Our youth soccer coaches have almost no experience in child psychology, childhood education, or game theory.
  2. ECONOMICS – Your child will NEVER make a living playing soccer, learning the game in our youth system. Even if they do somehow manage to overcome all of the roadblocks to become a pro soccer player, they still have a very limited window of opportunity, and the wage just doesn’t justify the opportunity.  USL and NASL players make about $1,000/weekly… for 20 weeks.  They need to get an education… in something useful.
  3. OVERPRICED – College tuition is cheaper than a childhood of competitive soccer fees. You will spend $40k to $50k over the next 13 year of youth soccer, but a GOOD college soccer scholarship is only worth about $10k (max.). Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts and Chess Club all look like more lucrative options. Participating in a tournament at Disney‘s Wide World of Sports is more expensive than just going to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but at the end of the day, both will leave you exhausted and vowing never to go back.
  4. SELF ESTEEM – Your child will feel like crap MORE than they will feel good about themselves. Competitive soccer is a verbal, physical and psychological beat down, and your yelling and screaming from the sideline doesn’t help. Nothing is ever good enough, yet you send them to practice week-in and week-out. It’s a grind, and the reason every athlete – including pros – quits. Few adults work that hard, yet we force it on our kids without blinking.
  5. TIME CONSUMING – You’ll spend more time driving than your child will spend playing. Games are played in a 3, 4 or 5 county region, and you’ll be blowing money on fast food, tournament fees and hotels, while your child really just wants to hang out on their mobile device.
  6. REGRET – You will regret it. No matter how much you spend in soccer fees, you will NEVER feel that it was worth it. In the end, you’ll have a college fraternity intramural SUPERSTAR, wishing they had an academic scholarship to the engineering program.
  7. STRESS – You’re child’s teammates are actually his COMPETITION. It’s that way in the pros, too. Players are ALWAYS competing against each other for spots on the team, positions on the field and playing time. ALWAYS. Imagine going to your own job knowing that EVERYONE you work with is working harder than you to get more work hours, and subsequently, a bigger paycheck. (Ok, so maybe that does go on at your job. It still SUCKS, though.)
  8. JUDGEMENT – You and your child will be judged by the other parents. At every practice and every game, the other parents and other players will compare their family to yours. That’s not paranoia – that’s a FACT. Your player’s skills, attitude and appearance will be a continuous topic of conversation, during other’s car rides home. Sometimes it will be good, but the conversations in the other cars will determine how your child is treated by his peers. YOUR conversations will also determine how your athlete treats their peers, but you ALREADY know this.
  9. STIFLING – “Competitive” youth soccer is NOT the best-of-the-best soccer athletes. Instead, it’s the best of those who can afford the fees. Most of these kids are well-mannered people-pleasers who will follow the direction of the person who yells the loudest. The American system of “player development” aims to teach kids a method of play that actually undermines creativity and sucks the enjoyment right out of the game.
  10. THEY’LL QUIT – The more competitive the league, the higher the burnout. When your child is old enough to make their own decisions, they will quit soccer. If you push back really hard, then it may not happen until they’re in college, but if they’re not having FUN, it WILL happen. If you DO actually want them to play in college (or even the pros one day), they need to take regular, seasonal breaks from “competitive” soccer.  Let them play other sports, and even recreational soccer. Let them have some fun.
Mike Slatton is a nationally licensed youth soccer coach, professional soccer scout and the father of 3 soccer players.
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About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1978). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

6 Comments

  1. I feel so conflicted about this article–my husband and I have insisted on staying rec but it seems everyone who is any good at all goes competitive. You wrote down what he and I have been thinking but I wonder how everyone else can be so wrong. How do we help our kids compete against other kids that get so many more touches without sacrificing our lives to the beast that soccer (really ALL sports) has become?

    • Mike Slatton on

      To develop an athlete, you want them to have the best competition available. The problem with “competitive” soccer is that the majority of youth players are playing “competitive”, and those who aren’t are the target of negative peer pressure. The truth is that your child is not going to learn how to be a pro in the American system, because those who coach are not interested in teaching your child how to be a pro. They’re only interested in WINNING. I just posted a reply with feedback to a junior college player who wants to “go pro” (https://soccermommanual.com/what-it-takes-to-be-a-pro/). I told him everything that was wrong, as well as what was right with his game.

      For your child’s sanity, accommodate his desires, and if he wants to play “competitive” soccer, then do it for a year. You’ll find him much less happy and ready to go back to rec in a year or two. The good news though, is that he can still play in college SOMEWHERE, if he wants to later, because for every child who ages out of youth soccer, there is an equal number who quit or graduate college soccer.

  2. Stephen Giffen on

    100% correct. The challenge is that you need enough of the parents to not buy in to the sales pitch to actually have meaningful red leagues. Where we are my kids don’t want to play Rec because the skill level on the one team is so low. So we either pay to play with all of the pressure or play with the least skilled players. Really a no win situation.

    By the way is that a subbuteo astropitch in the background of your photo?

  3. Great article. Not only is this 99% true, it’s as applicable and real in girls club soccer as it is on the boys side. My daughter was scouted by multiple clubs from AYSO when she was 6 years old. She is now 13 years old and has played club soccer for 7 straight years, with all but her first year on top flight one teams. She currently plays at the ECNL level(highest level for girls, no Academy till next year) and starts on what’s regarded as one of the top clubs in the country with several national championships under their belt. If she keeps playing and maintaing her level of play, she should be able to play Division I, in college. Long story short, she is getting burned out and we as parents are getting burned out from everyhing mentioned in this article – the horrible bias coaching and politics, the judgmental gossiping parents and team mates, the cost that will likely never be recovered, the mental and emotional ramifications of all the above. One thing not mentioned is now the contraversy around concussions and ACL injuries in girls youth soccer. It’s basically the highest among all girls youth sports and only second boys football. If you play long enough, it’s not a matter of if, but of when, at least in the case of concussions.

    As parents, we have to step back and ask ourselves, is it worth it and reassess what the ultimate goal is with realistic measures.

    We’ve decided to let our daughter play out the remainder of this season, and for the first time in 7 years, we are allowing her to make her own decision in pursuing other interests that she never had time for because of competitive club soccer and the supplemental 2-3 days a week of additional training on top of practice and games.

    Hope this perspective helps some of you.

  4. I’m never going to Quit. Remember my name. ALBERTO MARQUINA, THE NEXT BIG SOCCER STAR. I will change the way the game will be. I will change how this article impacted me to not give up and train kids who have no money. Because I’m one of those kids. I am in a club FOR FREE!! Your article is correct on some aspects, SOME, not all but a tiny percent of what you said is true. But don’t forget who I am because I’m about to prove your article wrong.

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