by Dan Woog
The soccer fields of Southern California seem to have little in common with Florence in the Renaissance.
Diogo Gama thinks otherwise.
“Imagine if there was only one painter there then,” the Cal South director of soccer says. “He would never get better.” The environment in the Italian city in that exciting time helped artists learn from each other, improve, and share their wonders with the world.
In 2022, Southern California is filled with talented young soccer players. But because the environment is so fragmented – with an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies and leagues, all keeping their players walled off from others – the quantity and quality of competition is artificially limited.
So Cal South took a bold step. The organization – with more than 204,000 players, coaches, referees and administrators — will run its next State Cup as true “open” events. Hundreds more teams will be eligible. Winners then advance to regional and national tournaments.
All Cal South teams – as well as those overseen by other groups, such as the Elite Academy, Development Player League, Girls Academy and, importantly, “any other affiliated/unaffiliated league that participates in Cal South geographical area” – can participate.
Teams must co-register with Cal South. However, they still play in their regular league; they have nothing to do with Cal South, beyond trying to win a state and national title against, Cal South CEO Terry Fisher says, “the best of the best.”
That’s not idle talk. Fisher has spent 50 years watching the fits-and-starts progress of soccer in the United States, from his post as the youngest head coach of any pro team in the nation (Los Angeles Aztecs, 1975), through USL championships as coach and general manager, and as a member of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors.
The growth in players has been mirrored by an explosion of groups that control them. When Fisher coached in the North American Soccer League, the holy grail for youth players was the McGuire Cup: US Youth Soccer’s U-19 boys national championship. Today, several different bodies crown “national champions.”
Cal South officials believe that is detrimental to the growth of the game. Rules that prevent top teams in different leagues from facing each other dilute American soccer. Artificial walls “do far more to protect revenue streams than to help players,” they said in announcing open criteria for the State Cup that begins in January.
“The time has come to stop the craziness, and create an event that invites alternate youth models to compete side by side, and aggregate the youth organizations on a level playing field,” Fisher says. “This is an opportunity to reunite the best players in Cal South, and not hide behind artificial claims of ‘best’ or ‘better.’ Do it on the field!”
“We really want what’s best for the players: give them access to competition, have a good experience, and get better in the process,” Gama adds.
The open state cup is well-timed, officials say. As U.S. Soccer, and American society in general, focus increasingly on diversity and inclusion, an initiative like this – which will include unaffiliated leagues, some of them serving immigrant populations – offers competition and exposure to players who might otherwise be overlooked.
In fact, Gama says, Cal South is actively reaching out to unaffiliated leagues and teams. “We want everyone to be part of our ecosystem.”
There are obstacles. Some teams may worry about “retribution” by their leagues if they enter Cal South’s open State Cup, says technical director Steve Hoffman. Leagues may actively try to block teams from registering for the tournament.
“We’re not trying to take anybody else’s money, or move in on their marketing,” Fisher pledges.
Travel may be an issue for some teams. Gama hopes that U.S. Soccer’s Innovate to Grow Fund can be used to offset expenses.
One other challenge: U.S. Youth Soccer requires that every league in a state cup be “sanctioned.” Cal South has simply “sanctioned” every league from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.
Over the next few years, in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup, the eyes of the world will focus on the United States, Fisher says. As an American soccer hotbed, Southern California will be in a special spotlight.
“This is a great opportunity for us to be a Petri dish for the growth of the game,” the CEO notes. “It’s time to stop making rules that restrict the growth of the game. Now we need to open it up.”
He says a “truly open” State Cup is a great way to start.