A Coach’s Perspective on US Youth Soccer
There has been a lot of discussion lately about FIFA’s rule 19, and whether or not Mexican clubs can register under aged Mexican-American players. In some cases, some Liga MX clubs have decided to abandon their scouting efforts in the US on a temporary basis until they get clarification from FIFA about the legalities of registering Liga MX Mexican-American players. It is unfortunate for all involved – for the clubs because they will leave what has been established as a very fertile area for scouting, and the players themselves. For better or for worse, one has to have money to play and develop their soccer skills in a hyper-competitive environment in the US. The ones with modest means get left behind.
We wanted to understand a little more about the culture in the US Youth Soccer world, so soccerchronicle.com conducted an interview with a gentleman who is a youth coach in the United States. We wanted him to break the myths and explain the realities. We also understand that this coach’s experiences are not universal, but he does paint a vivid picture of the state of youth soccer here in the US.
Soccerchronicle.com: What processes, if any did you have to follow to become a coach?
Coach: There is a starter license to coach club/travel called the “E” license. That’s the first step into becoming a travel team coach. For recreational leagues and Latin leagues there really isn’t a requirement and most of the time those teams have dad coaches. You also go through a background check and have your fingerprints run through an FBI database. Turns out I’m not the Zodiac guy or DB Cooper.
Soccerchronicle.com: That we know of yet. We may feel differently at the end of the interview (both parties laugh). What prompted you to start coaching?
Coach: To be honest it was for my kids. My oldest child played and her team was terrible. So I started working on my licenses and becoming a better teacher of the game. She ended up not liking the game but I enjoyed the coaching aspect.
Soccerchronicle.com: I know a lot of youth baseball leagues where I live have a reputation for being “daddy” leagues. Is it the same in youth soccer?
Coach: You definitely run into that from time to time. Certainly, the apparent favoritism. To a certain extent it’s acceptable, but it shouldn’t affect the team performance because better players aren’t given the playing time. But I have run across them, sure.
SC: How long have you been involved in coaching kids in the US?
Coach: I’ve been coaching for over 10 years for various age groups and skill levels. From AYSO to travel team and high school players.
SC: That seems to cover most of the levels of youth soccer. It looks like we got the right guy, then. When a young player emerges as one who is truly gifted, and you know as a coach that your faculties as a coach aren’t sufficient enough to aid in the player’s development, what course of action do you take to see about developing the player further?
Coach: The answer to this question depends on the coach and organization. The organization I coach for is constantly helping coaches to continue learning and this keeps the coaches knowledgeable ahead of what their players will need. Luckily, we have a way to promote these players and offer them further advancement.
Not every organization can offer this or has a director of coaching that cares to develop the coach. It also really helps to have an open minded person that accepts different points of view and grows from these interactions. Know-it-alls prove over time to not know it all, and they are more of a liability than an asset.
Our group doesn’t just prepare the players to play the game but how to approach the game and life outside it.
SC: It is good to hear that your group focuses to help kids prepare for life outside of soccer. Not every kid is going to make it.
Coach: Quite the opposite, actually. But we all know that. Sometimes I wish the parents would understand that a little better.
SC: OK. We have identified this kid as a can’t miss prodigy. What would be your ideal path for this talented youngster?
Coach: Ideally, getting an invitation to a professional youth academy and then having them leverage this for a free education. With luck and lots of hard work they would land in Europe and play Champion’s League one day. First they must learn the discipline required to be successful and grow into balanced human beings. Que sean buenas personas ante todo.
SC: That certainly is the best possible scenario. I am sure that any player and their family would love to have that kind of opportunity. Now that you have lined out the ideal situation of the path for a gifted youngster. Now gives us the reality
Coach: The reality is a lot of talented kids get left behind for one reason or another. The culture here in the US is so different. It’s not about which player shows long term potential, but which players can help the team win in the short term, help the coach make a name for himself, and fatten his bottom line.
Many kids end up quitting the game because their parents, who never played beyond the occasional pick-up game, expect their kid to be Maradona or Messi from day 1. The pressure is just too daunting for a 12-year old to take most of the time. Ask this parent to help him with homework, though.
Lots of kids stop playing travel leagues because they are eventually priced out. The average annual cost for a 12-year old is $2000, and that does not include travel expenses. To an extent, it’s understandable for those coaches who make their living from youth teams, but it is definitely borders on exploitation, particularly for the more talented kids. Both by their parents who never emphasize education over sports, and the youth clubs who proudly display their trophies won by players they “developed”. It is how they market themselves.
There are a lucky few that may end up getting college scholarships. The rest. Who knows.
SC: It seems, then, that one would have to make a serious financial commitment to refine a child’s development in the sport. I have always thought that because of this model, soccer is more of an elitist sport in the US compared to the rest of the world. Everywhere else it is the sport of the people.
Coach: It is very much an elitist sport. You still have the local kids that play just for fun and participate in local Latin leagues. But, those leagues take you nowhere. Most of these kids that go pro and end up in MLS are from middle to upper-middle class households.
SC: Are public schools equipped to make up the difference?
If I am being completely honest, public school soccer is a joke. High School soccer players are really bad. And the coaches are usually there because they know someone, not because they are good at their jobs. Most kids play high school soccer for school pride and/or the experience of having their classmates cheer for them.
SC: Well, as a former HS player, I would have taken a little umbrage with that had I not seen Dallas Cup. I just finished working the Texas State Championships, and there were some very talented teams and players. But when I compare the level of play from Dallas Cup to what I saw last weekend, there is no comparison. But the Brownsville team was fun to watch.
Coach: Understand that Dallas Cup is one of the elite global youth tournaments. National Teams compete in Dallas Cup. It is very prestigious. But you see my point.
SC: Yes, yes I do. You mentioned that winning and trophies are the main marketing tools of select programs? How protective are they of their players when an MLS team or another club comes calling?
Coach: I’ve heard of some coaches camping out in front of MLS academy tryouts to catch their players… it is a dirty business in some respects. There is the Olympic Development Program where the “elite” kids are invited as part of the scouting process for national team pools. It’s a farce. Players have to pay to be able to attend the sessions – 100 kids at 100 dollars a head – a $10,000 session.
If they are lucky enough to make the later rounds of cuts, there will be pressure to join a United States Soccer Development Academy League team. This is the league that MLS Academy teams play in. There is a connected set of clubs that also field teams in this league. Most of the talent is supposed to funnel towards that league and teams. That isn’t necessarily the case because of travel costs. Only MLS teams and a handful of non-MLS organizations can afford to pay a player’s room & board + travel.
SC: So a lot of kids that have talent & potential, but modest means fall through the cracks. It seems like the system is upside down because the stakeholders have their priorities out of kilter. Are there any academies that have built their reputation for developing kids as opposed to collecting hardware?
Coach: There are a few that are able to stake that claim. But, it is only a handful of coaches. One guy would be Clint Greenwood who was Landon Donovan’s youth coach. Unfortunately, he has retired. The system is upside down, the parents that can pay are the stakeholders. They get to make demands, and if they do not get what they want, they will find coach that will capitulate.
SC: It doesn’t seem surprising, then, that Liga MX teams have had success in scouting the US. Their endgame might be the same, but priorities are a little different.
Coach: It benefits the US National Team to have these kids developed in a professional environment. When you go to a trial to Mexico, these kids are offered room and board for a week. Sometimes they stay 2 weeks and also put in a classroom so they don’t miss too much school. They do pay for their own travel due to FIFA rules. Compare that to a trial for LA Galaxy Academy; you don’t even get a bottle of water for your troubles.
SC: Are Liga MX teams the only out of towners that scout the kids?
Coach: I’ve heard of kids attending trials in Spain and Germany. I don’t believe the scouts ever make it out here on their own to scout unknown players. What appears to be happening is that intermediary agencies, operating locally, scout prospective kids, polish them up, and then bring in the overseas scouts. A bit more targeted.
Sure, you still have the big youth tournaments like Dallas Cup and San Diego Surf Cup that attract interest outside the country. And, you do get scouts from Mexico and beyond looking to find that diamond in the rough.
SC: It is unfortunate, but you are painting a grim picture for young soccer athletes in the US. In your opinion, how far behind are the MLS clubs to the rest of the world when it comes to having a solid infrastructure in place to really start mining for diamonds?
Coach: They won’t be catching up anytime soon. MLS academies just simply can’t put in the training hours. They just simply don’t have the infrastructure to develop these kids. You need to be able to provide room & board, education, housing and all the logistics to make it run. American soccer players fall behind the curve once they hit their teens. That is the age the rest of the world begins approaching the beautiful game as a career.
SC: Again, there are exceptions. FC Dallas has done an excellent job of developing their own players. Just this past weekend, Victor Ulloa, an FC Dallas youth system product, wore the captain’s armband in their match vs Sporting KC this past weekend. Their roster is littered with their own products, and they happen to be leading the league.
Coach: As you said, there are exceptions.
SC: As far as Mexican American players, if a young prospect asked for your advice if he had to choose between going to a Liga MX club academy or staying with his select team, what would you tell him?
Coach: I would tell them to consider this kind of opportunity very seriously. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of offer and the experience will help them grow. I find this situation to be very similar to a student studying abroad for a semester. And nobody has an issue with that! At least publicly.
SC: I got to spend a semester in Paris and it changed my life. You learn a lot about yourself when you are thrust into a foreign environment like that. So I can certainly see the similarities.
There has been reports lately about Liga MX sides putting a moratorium on scouting the US for fear of violating FIFA’s Rule 19. A rule that limits teams from registering players from outside their countries’ borders.
The rule was put in place to eliminate the exploitation of youth players. What, if any, exploitation have you seen from clubs, both foreign and domestic?
Coach: The youth soccer tournament system in the US is the most exploitative instrument out there. Young players are expected to play 4 or 5 games in a weekend and not incur injuries. This leads to lower quality soccer overall when players have to coast and reserve some energy for the following games.
Embezzlement issues have also come up at some of these youth soccer clubs. Most are non-profit organizations, so skimming off the top is not an unheard of practice. There was recently a high profile case with a youth soccer club outside of Los Angeles.
There are other issues as well. The one where youth soccer clubs and coaches want compensation from the MLS academies that poach the players they develop puzzles me. Given the parents foot the bill. How does that entitle them to further compensation?
SC: You bring up a solid point. If anything, MLS should reimburse the parents for having to pony up for the annual fees and the travel expenses. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You have certainly shed light on a topic that does not get a lot of ink.
Coach: Thank you for the interview. A gentleman and a scholar. It is good to see Soccer Chronicle at the leading edge when it comes to reporting footie news and shedding light on issues few people are aware of.
SC: It is our pleasure.
This is only one coach’s experience, and like we said at the beginning of the piece, these experiences are not universal. What is very apparent, and I am sure it comes to no surprise to anyone reading here is that a lot of very talented players are missing out on some key opportunities. Players who do not have the financial capacity to invest in their future in one country, but have a prospect in another where they have the legal right to work and own land, then that player should eligible to be registered by a club. FIFA’s Rule 19 is well intentioned, but there certainly needs to be some clarification.
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