Friday, August 26, 2016
Much of the talk throughout youth soccer focuses on the journey beyond – high school, college, semi-pro, professional. That’s a wonderful route for a select few players, but what about the youth player who yearns to continue in the sport? Early in August I had the pleasure of attending the National Amateur Cup Championship which was held in Milwaukee. Just as in youth soccer, there are adult leagues overseen by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) and divided into the same four regions: I – Western U.S., II – Upper Midwest, III – Southern U.S., and IV – Eastern U.S. Teams compete in their state, in their region, and then in the national competition. Many youth clubs also sponsor adult teams called Majors and Reserves. There are also other leagues which play primarily in the summer as a place for strong adult and former and present college players to compete. These include the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), Premier Development League (PDL), W-League (for women), and Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL). In some cases players have moved on from these latter leagues into semi-pro and professional teams, but the true purpose is to provide adult players with strong competitive soccer beyond the youth level.
The USASA operates under the same umbrella of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) which oversees US Youth Soccer and are further governed by the world organization of FIFA. This provides a nearly seamless transfer from youth to adult soccer. Likewise the NPSL, PDL, W-League, and the WPSL are sanctioned by the USASA. Players of all ability levels should be able to find a team that fits their talents, passions, and time commitments once they “graduate” to adult soccer. Recently I saw the mother of a former teammate of Bryce who said her son was “finally done with professional soccer.” I knew what that meant. He had just graduated from college, had his first job in his career, and was moving into a more career-centered life. But he was not giving up soccer. He had already found a strong adult amateur team in Minnesota near his new employment, and he’d be starting practices with them before he even went to his job orientation. The love of play doesn’t just shut off.
The Amateur Cup involves the adult club teams of Majors and Reserves around the United States. At the tournament I got to watch a local club team who had won the Region II championship. That meant I got to once again cheer on several players I’d had the pleasure of watching grow up in soccer. On the team were several of my sons’ former club teammates, several ODP players who I had first seen when they were twelve, and a smattering of old college standouts from the area. The team lost in the finals to an amazing team from Maryland representing Region IV who surprisingly had a former player from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. These amateur teams generally train two or three evenings a week since many of the players have full-time jobs. The season is approximately fourteen games throughout the late spring and summer demanding on their success to reach the tournament. It requires tremendous dedication and expense since there is rarely some benevolent sponsor covering all the training and travel costs. These players love the game and crave the competition. In many cases they have wives and children, who all attend, and lend a party spirit to the occasion. At halftime of each of the semi-final, consolation, and final games the pitch was filled with youngsters dribbling, shooting, and doing a few gymnastic moves. The scene was a special reminder of how soccer binds generations, genders, cities, and nations through a shared love of the game.
Most adult teams welcome players as young as high school age and as old as a player feels comfortable still playing. Just as youth players have to register with a team and are bound to that team for a year, so too must adult players sign with a particular team through their state association of the USASA. An interested player can locate teams in his or her area by contacting their state association or going on their web site and getting the phone numbers of the coach or club president. In general the youth clubs in the area will have an adult division, so a player should feel free to contact youth clubs. I’ve known many parents of youth players who play for the same club on the adult teams. It certainly adds to the complexities of scheduling practices and games for a family, but also adds to the mutual enjoyment. Generally the fees to be on an adult team are far less than those of a youth team and uniforms are minimal – players may just need to buy a set of t-shirts and then supply their own shorts and socks. Often attendance at practices and games can be a bit ragged due to the tougher scheduling conflicts for adults, so teams will maintain large rosters to cover all the competitions. The great thing is that if anyone wants to continue playing past youth soccer there will be a team nearby where he or she can indulge that passion.
In general youth players transitioning to college and looking to continue playing competitive soccer but who either can’t or don’t want to play college soccer can turn to the adult Major and Reserve teams of local clubs as a reasonable option. Additionally players may find on-campus soccer teams that use the same fields as the university team. It gives them a convenient opportunity to continue playing and to do so within the same training facilities as the institution’s teams. Likewise they may get the chance to participate in practices and friendlies with the team giving the non-college players a chance to be seen once again by the coaches. If players choose to participate in a club team, they will still reap many of the same benefits as college team players in terms of social contacts and developing time management. Even during high school, many clubs may sponsor recreational U-15 through U-19 teams that players who looking to play soccer for fun and fitness can join. These teams will play in organized and sanction leagues through the state youth soccer associations, but the intensity of play isn’t the same as for travel teams allowing for a more relaxed atmosphere.
NPSL, PDL, W-League, and WPSL teams have more stringent requirements for team membership and participation. These leagues often have several active college players on the teams looking for a place to maintain their edge in the off-season. The teams are sanctioned by the NCAA as long as the college players adhere to certain standards relating to monetary and playing time rules. Likewise, to prevent a college “ghost” team from getting to practice together outside of the regulated NCAA times, these summer league teams are limited – the last I understood it was five players from the same college on any of these intensive teams. Likewise college players can’t play with paid players, but can play against them, so often you’ll find a mix of semi-pro and amateur teams in these leagues. Generally unless a player has college experience he or she won’t be considered by these squads, but they all hold open try-outs in the spring, so everyone is welcomed to try. These teams often will have sponsors who cover costs of competition. College players can be on teams that are sponsored so long as the players don’t receive any direct compensation beyond uniforms, training, and travel costs to compete.
Even for much older adult players there are over-35, over-45, and even senior leagues offering options for anyone who wishes to continue playing. All of these leagues can be located in your state by contacting the state adult soccer association. Indoor soccer facilities run leagues as well where players form their own teams to participate. These don’t fall under the same sanctions and rules of the USASA, but are independent and generally short-term teams formed solely for the purpose of playing in an indoor tournament or six-week league. Players should contact the facilities directly who can guide them to teams looking for members for indoor sessions. Older players can also contact organizations such as the YMCA, churches, health clubs, and city and town adult recreation departments who may sponsor teams for friendly pick-up games.
Soccer doesn’t need to stop if a player foregoes his or her high school squad. Statistically 70% of kids in organized sports quit before high school. The biggest reason for quitting a sport (39% for boys and 38% for girls) is that it just wasn’t fun anymore. Perhaps if youth soccer players knew that there were other options out there not dictated by the intensity of high school to college to professional parameters, they might be persuaded to keep playing. As parents, we should find out why our kids want to abandon the sport and if the reason has to do with lost enjoyment in the sport, it might be a good idea to back off of expecting our kids to make the next step to higher levels of play and accept that they want to play because they enjoy the activity. Options are available which help preserve the opportunity to play while providing the atmosphere our players seek. Letting our children maintain their carefree approach to the sport won’t diminish our enjoyment at all. We’ll get to watch them compete, see them improve, and continue to participate in both the highs and the lows of organized sports while insuring that our children don’t feel under pressure to perform or succeed. One of the parent coaches at our local soccer club when my sons, Robbie and Bryce, were in high school formed a U-15 team for players who weren’t interested in high school soccer, but wanted to continue playing. Several of the parents of my sons’ teammates questioned why the club was agreeing to sponsor such a team, which they saw as a waste of resources and possibly snatching good players away from the competitive and high school teams. At the end of the season, the players on that recreational team overwhelmingly agreed to play another year with the same parent coach, while our competitive team only got four players to show up at tryouts. It was a strong message that kids will stick with a sport if they are having fun and feeling good about playing. That team only broke up when the boys all left for college. I’m hoping their example will remind us all that ultimately playing soccer should come from and be sustained by a real joy for the game.