Can High School play a role in youth soccer development?

One story over the last month that really intrigued me was NY Cosmos ending West Coast partnership with Los Angeles F.C. The presumed reason for this split was a disagreement about the ‘pay-to-play’ structure, and it’s an intriguing story because it puts a spotlight on the fundamental conflict of American youth development.

The New York Cosmos are making a bold attempt to treat youth development the same way that teams around the world do. Pay all of the youth player’s expenses, train every day, teach the kids to be professionals and then sell them to European clubs for millions. The method of the club paying expenses gets the most talented players on the field, not just talented players who can afford the cost of training.

Go back and watch the pre World Cup feature on Clint Dempsey.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db4ryqEh9Bk&playnext=1&list=PL5681ECA1338F687A). It is a damning statement about youth soccer, and many American fans clamor that ‘pay to play’ is keeping us from finding more Clint Dempseys. But how can elite youth soccer exist without ‘pay to play’?? In the Cosmos system, it is rare that the trained player be worth millions, and more than likely the investment in training and coaching and transporting the player will be a sunk cost. That works OK in Europe, where soccer is big business, but it can’t work in America until soccer commands more attention in the sports landscape.

There is one place where kids can get soccer for free — school. Whether its high school soccer, or earning a college scholarship, school is the one place where every kid has to be every day, and the kid is (generally) not charged for pursuing athletics. And our biggest American sports use this to their advantage. High School football has now become something the average sports fan has to be aware of, particularly the College Football fan. After watching the signing day circus that ESPN put out for signing day, this is not a trend that’s going away. Then there’s basketball. In basketball, kids strive to make their high school basketball team, and then if they’re talented enough they go to a few AAU tournaments and showcases to get noticed. The average cost of AAU is $550. The average cost of club soccer is roughly three times that. Instead of asking ‘what if Lebron James picked soccer?’ we should be asking ‘would Lebron have been able to stick with Basketball if it cost his family $2,000 a season?’

Regardless of your background, you have to go to school. Don’t get me wrong. The Cosmos and the other 77 US Development Academies should continue doing what they’re doing. But in my opinion, everything else should be contracted, and the focus should shift to building and promoting high school soccer. In that environment, you get to find the hidden gems that American fans clamor for, and you do it primarily on somebody else’s dime.

I completely agree that high school and college soccer have little impact on MLS, and the youth academies should be the focus. I just don’t think there is enough money to train all these players for free, particularly when most will peak at the college level, not in MLS.

My assumption is that most, if not all MLS Academy players, come from club teams. I don’t know how many official club teams there are these days, but my argument is that the MLS Academies and US Development Academy will indirectly help in the contraction of some of these extra club teams, and streamline the development of the American player. In a perfect world, high school would pick up the slack, and be the next tier in development — not ‘Random Club FC’. Otherwise, kids are going to keep choosing other sports, just because they don’t want to pay 1,000-2,000 dollars for descent competition. Besides, club soccer and MLS Academies inherently have different goals. In the MLS Academies, the focus is on developing professionals. In club, the focus is not completely on winning, but a lack of wins can cost a youth coach his/her job. If high school soccer were a bigger priority, to the point where mid-level club coaches were actually high school coaches, there might be more of a chance to figure out what happened to that kid who ran past everyone in AYSO, but ended up being a high school basketball star.

I understand that high school soccer is not seen as highly competitive, and to elite Academy players, it shouldn’t be. I agree, they shouldn’t bother with it. But what I see more of are kids that are paying for clubs, downplaying high school soccer, and ultimately ending up in the same place — college. This is extremely inefficient, and crowds out kids who didn’t start paying for club teams at 11 or 12 years old. Meanwhile, club soccer becomes ‘kids who can pay for it’ vs. ‘other kids who can pay for it’. If these aren’t Academy teams, what’s the point? Kids in America are paying the most for a sport that is supposed to cost the least.

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One Response to Can High School play a role in youth soccer development?

  1. Dex says:

    Very interesting article. I’ve thought alot about this subject before. I’m Dutch myself, but living in New York currently.

    To me your pay to play system tells me academies in the U.S. don’t have enough trust in their own judgement and/or youth development to invest in a player. Nowhere else this system exists. And you can’t say that from a financial or even quality point of view the MLS is worse than some leagues in small European countries. For instance, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Slovakia etc.

    And club soccer costs 2000 dollars a year in the U.S.? That’s crazy. In the Netherlands it’s about 100-150 euro a year for youth. And about 8% of the whole population are members of a soccer slub.

    Because club soccer is that expensive I would think too that High School soccer is a good alternative. But, I also understand that good players often end up playing alot of games, both for their school and club or academy. Which is a wrong approach, and not an efficient and risk free way to develop youth.

    But to come to a conclusion, having to pay that much to play at a club or academy pretty much excludes a large demographic, the most important demographic. In all soccer countries that have more of a soccer tradition and culture, the lower class is the driving force behind the sport. When it comes to players, but also when it comes overall popularity and fans.

    I’m afraid there’s plenty other things wrong with U.S. youth development however. Here’s a very interesting article on the subject of U.S. youth development: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/magazine/06Soccer-t.html?pagewanted=all

    Later!

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