Monday, January 31, 2011
Recently I was reading the top ten youth soccer stories for 2010 from Goal.com and one article by youth editor J. R. Eskilson reminded me of the controversy stirred up during the World Cup by ESPN commentator and retired German player Jurgen Klinsmann. I think the issues he brought up are worthy of another look. Klinsmann took great issue with the development of youth players in the U.S. It began with his comment that the top U.S. players "did not live up to their expectations…" and ended with a condemnation of the U.S. system. Soccer message boards were inundated with discussion following this commentary, most of it in agreement with Klinsmann with personal stories of how the U.S. youth soccer system had failed writers or their children.
Why should any of us parents listen to Klinsmann? He has had a long and productive career both on the pitch and in the head office. After the World Cup he was in serious negotiations to become the next U.S. Men's National Team (MNT) coach but the organization stayed with Bob Bradley. Klinsmann played on the German National Team which won the World Cup in 1990 and the UEFA Cup in 1996. He coached the German Team to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup and managed Bayern Munich and the Swiss National Team. He has been a consultant for the MLS including working directly with the L.A. Galaxy and most recently with Toronto FC. He is married to an American and has two children that he has raised in Southern California. So he knows both international soccer and U.S. soccer, including youth soccer, intimately.
He argues that American soccer players lack even the most basic of soccer skills because they are not trained in a serious, competent manner. Further he contends that the American development system "… is the only country in the world who has the pyramid upside down. That means you pay for having your kid play soccer …" Therefore, he says, the best players aren't playing in the clubs, only the players who can afford it. Although U.S. Soccer Federation has tried to address this with the Development Academy, where more players are being developed and are supposed to play for free, the reality is that this varies from club to club, that clubs still don't recruit from diverse groups and neighborhoods, and the Academy program covers just a small portion of the U.S. He bluntly accuses the U.S. of ignoring huge pools of talented players. "…You need to find ways, whatever they may be to connect … with everyone and get the kids that are really hungry." In particular he believes that America needs to approach soccer in the same way it approaches basketball. "…Soccer is very similar to basketball; you need it out of the lower class environment. Soccer worldwide is a lower environment sport. We all got up from moderate families and fought our way through." For years the development plan in America was to identify the best 40 or 50 players and then train them together in a national academy. Most of the world's programs train tens of thousands of players, who claw and fight for the privilege of becoming a member of one of the professional clubs and, for the very best, the national teams. Klinsmann argues that this hunger is missing in American soccer because parents pay to get their kids in a club. Kids aren't vying to get a spot on the MNT. Instead they are vying for college scholarships with no plans to go pro after school. Speaking of those who direct the development of players he says, "I think it's really important that they lay out a philosophy for U.S. Soccer and say 'where do we want to go?'"
What does this all mean for parents of youth players? I think they could ask the same question for their family. "Where do we want to go?" Our kids have so many options in youth sports that it's difficult to figure out how to balance variety with development. Soccer has always been a sport that has demanded complete devotion from an early age. That's easy in countries where soccer is not only the most respected team sport but the only team sport of any substance. Here soccer competes for attention and respect against a dozen other significant team sports which offer even more lucrative college scholarships. Add to that soccer's escalating expenses as players advance to more competitive teams, and you have a recipe for desertion. We had two caveats with our boys when it came to soccer: One: Seek out unconventional opportunities and Two: play for the best team where they would be starters. The first caveat brought the boys to play in a predominantly Hispanic league where the coaches weren't paid but had a wealth of expertise from their amateur and pro experiences in Mexico, Central America, and South America. The boys learned a completely different style of play, which has proved valuable both as experience and in being flexible. The second caveat brought Bryce to a Serbian team that he probably would have never considered given our suburban club experience. He learned about the European system, how to play when generations of old-time soccer players came to the games to shout and criticize, and how to handle far more physical games than were played in the usual leagues. Oh, and did I mention that the year cost us $150 compared to $1500 + with his previous club team? We parents need to assess our child's interest in the sport, look for opportunities to advance that interest and our child's skills, and fight for reasonable costs when dealing with traveling teams. We have a system of youth coaching licensing in the United States which should be one of the standards parents look for in a club. Having an English coach only tells you the coach played in England but doesn't say anything about his coaching credentials. Look for at minimum a C level national license which shows that the coach and the club take seriously their education responsibilities.
In the bigger picture, the powers that be need to find a way to connect with all youth players and make soccer affordable for any child who wants to play. U.S. Youth Soccer Association addresses this with their Soccer Across America program (/programs/SoccerAcrossAmerica/
). The goal of the program is to provide soccer to areas not yet served by existing soccer clubs and leagues and to families who can't afford the costs of soccer participation. Inexpensive soccer programs are available through community organizations that serve at risk youth and several non-profits such as Soccer Without Borders (http://www.soccerwithoutborders.org/
) which operates in the U.S. and five other countries around the world. What we are missing is an umbrella organization that merges all the youth programs into a way to identify players to become part of a national development system. Kids in many of the free programs don't get looked at by national coaches and don't play for high school programs with enough visibility to be noticed by college coaches. These kids are often the hungriest and many come from a tradition of soccer being well-respected in their homes and communities. This is the pool of players that Klinsmann argues isn't being identified, developed, and given opportunities to play for top clubs, national teams, colleges, and/or pros. We have a rich pool of talent that has gone untapped. Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in America, but we still have a long way to go before we have completely righted the pyramid to its proper position and work from the broad base of youth players here. Rather than have competing clubs who literally sell their superiority for getting players identified, we need to have a network of identification that doesn't depend on parents' ability to afford the opportunity and does address every potential youth player in America.