by Mike Woitalla
In 2007, I predicted that by now we'd have pre-natal soccer camps and U-2 national championships in the USA. They haven't quite gotten there.
The toddler soccer school industry doesn't sign them up until they're 18 months old. National championships haven't dipped much below the teens, but your club can find them for every year's age group starting at U-13. And there are plenty of "showcase" events you can fly to with even younger teams.
Last month's sad news that Gerard Houllier died reminded me of when we met at the 2008 United Soccer Coaches convention -- and his incredulous look when told that in the USA there are U-10 state cups and national youth championships for 13-year-olds. He told us that in France they have regional competition for U-16s and the first French national championship was at U-18. Another World Cup-winning country from the last decade, Germany, is the size of Montana and has two youth national championships -- U-16 and U-19.
I can imagine how age groups got younger and younger for American national championships, showcase tournaments and long-distance travel, because I've long followed the boasting about the multi-million dollar economic impact of such events. Adding more age groups, which means going younger, swells that economic impact. Whether these youngsters need a national championship or airline travel to find strong competition is a question they easily ignore when they're adding up entrance fees and hotel commissions.
Four decades ago, U.S. national team coach Bob Gansler warned that America was "suffering from a huge case of tournamentitis." And that was when the tournament industry was still in its infancy. A decade ago, U.S. Youth Soccer found it necessary to state that: “We believe that excessive play at competitive tournaments is detrimental to individual growth and development, and can serve to reduce long-term motivation."
I don't dismiss the value of tournament travel for children -- and families. I imagine most who have coached, played and/or parented in the youth game as I have cherish fond memories from youth soccer trips. Travel boosts camaraderie, exposes us different parts of the country and diverse styles of soccer. But I've had conversations with youth coaches who said they travel more than they feel necessary -- because their leagues require it or parents equate more travel with a higher level. And no doubt there are legions of coaches who relish the all-expenses paid travel, networking opportunities, and the thrills of tournament competition. Why wouldn't they?
When the Covid hit early last year and the youth soccer landscape began shifting in the wake of U.S. Soccer ending its Development Academy, I imagined an opportunity to localize and regionalize the youth game. That, by my reasoning, would lead to more affordable youth soccer. It didn't take long to realize that the post-DA era youth soccer will continue to be a turf war between governing bodies and event promoters competing for national championship entries, tournament registration fees and hotel commissions. Indeed, new national championships have already been announced.
But why shouldn't there be as many national championships and "showcases" as the market can bear as long as there are satisfied customers? American youth soccer will always be a free market, for better or worse. As United Soccer Coaches CEO Lynn Berling-Manuelput it recently: "At the high end of our sport, there are more options for players than ever. I appreciate the desire by some for a single pathway for players but that just isn’t how America operates."
She followed up with, "What I’d love to see is rather than slice the pie smaller, U.S. Soccer focus on making a bigger pie. The public school systems from kindergarten through high school are blue water opportunities for soccer."
The potential for schools to play a larger and more significant role in American youth soccer has been on my mind for some time now. What other level of soccer provides as many kids cost-free soccer as high school ball does? Where is time carved out in a child's daily routine for play? At school recess and P.E. As former AYSO national executive director Mike Hoyer put it: "Sports in schools eliminates the three basic challenges of providing play equity to economically challenged areas or communities that are underserved for youth sports: transportation, affordability, and accessibility."
U.S. Soccer Foundation CEO Ed Foster-Simeoncites alarming statistics on the limited access to parks for children in the USA, and says: "That’s why the U.S. Soccer Foundation believes it's so important to build small soccer courts at schools and neighborhood parks a short walk or bike ride from where children in under-served communities live and go to school." During four years of volunteering in Oakland for Soccer Without Borders, whose teams play in leagues under the U.S. Youth Soccer and U.S. Club umbrellas, I've seen how essential the availability of school facilities and the cooperation with a school district is to so many youth players.
In June, I interviewed former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, whose founding of the Urban Soccer Leadership Academy offers a fine example how youth soccer can partner with a school district. America Scores has been spurring soccer in schools since 1994. Hoyer told me about the Beyond the Bell program in Los Angeles. No doubt there are many more examples of organizations partnering with schools for underserved children.
But regardless of a child's socio-economic background, the potential of soccer in schools to boost the American youth soccer is tremendous, as Paul Kennedy pointed out a year ago in his article: "Think small and think local: SA's tips for using schools to address soccer's access problem," in which he cited some of the valuable research done by the Aspen Institute. The obvious conclusion: "Focusing on establishing schools as hubs for sports and recreation. They already provide easy and safe access for all youths in school. And they have families with a vested interest in using the facilities for the greater interest of the community."
Post-Development Academy, post-pandemic youth soccer in America will continue to compete for parents' money in ways that are not, in my opinion, always necessary for creating fun and beneficial soccer experiences for children. The difference going forward is that U.S. Soccer has freed itself from the turf war fray and, besides its national team program mission, can serve a far wider swath of soccer in the USA by supporting soccer in schools.
U.S. Soccer did clubs a huge favor by banning high school play in the DA. Imagine how much more income clubs received from the thousands of players who paid year-round club costs. In this new era, U.S. Soccer should help improve high school soccer instead of dismissing it by harping on its flaws. How about offering school coaches its entry level coaching courses free of charge and significantly subsidize the higher level courses for high school coaches?
As Kennedy suggested, local youth leagues and clubs are best positioned to partner and boost school soccer. But with its leadership and resources, and by encouraging club-school cooperation, U.S. Soccer can complement the groundwork that has already been laid to create a far more expansive youth soccer culture in the USA.