Pay-to-play youth soccer limits talent

U.S. men’s soccer failed to qualify for the World Cup.
U.S. men’s soccer failed to qualify for the World Cup. AP

David beating Goliath is very exciting – unless you’re a fan of Goliath.

The United States has 330 million people and a massive youth soccer system, yet its men’s national soccer team just got bushwhacked by a team from Trinidad and Tobago, a country with 1.3 million residents.

How could this happen?

It’s not just about cultural norms. (Even if 90 percent of the U.S. population didn’t care about soccer, 33 million still would.) It’s not just about high school football teams siphoning off potential soccer talent. (There’s talent enough to go around.) It’s not just about U.S. soccer’s leadership and disorganization. (There are ineffective bureaucracies everywhere.) It’s not just about the unimaginative style of soccer played by U.S. teams. (Nobody criticizes the German team’smethodical style.)

Instead the problem is the American system of identifying and cultivating soccer talent – or, more accurately, not identifying this talent.

For the past six years I have been researching and writing about the commercialized youth sports industry, including a youth soccer system that excludes low-income and nonsuburban families from participating at the same rate as higher-income families.

U.S. kids don’t play soccer with bare feet on hardscrabble barrio fields where creativity dominates the action and with few grownups in sight.

Instead, too many American kids play soccer in high-tech cleats on manicured suburban fields, where they stand around quietly until an adult (often paid) runs them through repetitive drills – all to prepare for an expensive tournament three states away.

Commercial components permeate every aspect of the youth game. Research presented in my recent book on college and youth sports shows that family income is highly correlated with youth soccer participation. About 25 percent of American families have incomes over $100,000 annually, yet they produce 35 percent of youth soccer players.

Conversely, the 25 percent of families with incomes below $25,000 account for only 13 percent of youth soccer players. Forty percent of youth soccer players will leave the sport between ages 13 – 18.

Many leave for financial reasons. Kids interested in playing soccer must increasingly pay for apparel, equipment, team fees, coaches, trainers, tournament travel and field space. It’s not unusual for families to spend over $10,000 per child per year to play organized youth soccer.

The result is a system more attuned to identifying the best payers than the best players.

Those remaining in what I call the pay-to-play soccer system increasingly sign up for high-cost tournaments with the idea that it'll increase their chances of being identified by the national team or college recruiters who frequent the expensive tournaments.

What would have become of Cristiano Renaldo or Marta had they grown up in the U.S. pay-to-play system?

U.S. international dominance in men’s basketball provides a good contrast to soccer. Sure, there’s a significant commercial element to youth basketball.

But there’s a robust network of recruiters who still go to cramped high school gyms and neighborhood playgrounds teeming with skilled players. Low-income boys are 50 percent more likely to participate in basketball than in soccer, with participation rates identical between blacks and Latinos (despite cultural stereotypes that assume Latinos are more likely to play soccer).

There might be a reason for this: There are low-cost options for playing basketball (and being noticed), unlike in soccer. The U.S. men’s national basketball team does not systematically exclude an enormous swath of the population merely because it is poor. A bigger talent pool equals better teams.

Men’s soccer will never be able to compete internationally as long as it is enmeshed in a class-restrictive youth sports system.