The problems with US youth soccer

Tim Howard recently commented on the state of US Youth Soccer by stating that "The system doesn’t operate in a way that allows for young soccer players to develop... . I lived it, I’m a soccer dad, I was raised by a soccer mom, I lived in Europe, so I’ve seen it all. We don’t develop our players at any type of good rate."

I want to expand on this concept and illustrate why youth soccer in US fails to produce high level players at a rate expected and consistent with its population size, resources and high participation in the sport.

So, let's start from the beginning, from the way in which a footballer is formed, and in doing so in the interest of time let’s skip the pre-competitive age group, meaning the grassroots and youth academy (U7-U12) ages - although a parenthesis could also be opened here, but this is another story.

At the age of 12, kids “finally" enter the competitive arena. And here is when the real problems begin. In fact, youth competitive soccer in this country is a perverse machine founded on business, with much more harmful dynamics - paradoxically - than the professional level. Here, not only is the system constructed in such a way that profit is the priority, but to make matters worse, this occurs at the expense of quality and growth, both of the boys themselves, and of the US soccer movement in general.

What do MLS Next, ECNL, USYS National League and EDP all have in common? Tiers, rankings and divisions. This takes us directly to the heart of the problem. The primary goal, in fact, from age 12 and, at times even before, becomes to win in order to maintain or climb the rankings or divisions within the league. Legit, you will say. The problem is how and why.

Starting from the assumption that youth soccer is part of a framework of enormous, generalized ignorance, many parents find fertile ground in it, and cause real harm to the kids, by auto-convincing themselves that their child is the new Ronaldo, Messi, Haaland, van Dijk, or just simply the new Donovan or Pulisic.

This is the fundamental premise, because all the problems, trivially, derive from here, the parents. Convinced of having the rising star of international football in their household, or even just a potential professional player (odds 1 in 5,000), as a parent where do they take him? Simple, in the bigger leagues and in the best-known clubs which, as such, participate in the top tier championships, out of state travel leagues, and tournaments, attended by scouts, agents, college coaches, journalists, etc.

It seems not to matter that the boy is the thirty-second in the hierarchies on that team, or that to take him to training the parent must travel 40-50 miles each way and spend hours in traffic, or that away games require spending thousands of dollars on flights and hotels. The important thing seems to be that he is on the “big” stage - and wearing the gear of a known “top” youth club. Perhaps then a scout, a college coach or an agent will take notice, and all efforts will pay off (when pigs fly).

To their part, the bigger youth clubs, well aware of this mechanism, knowing that in tier/division A there will be three times more players wanting to play than in tier/division B and that long distance travel becomes the norm, hence the rebates and commissions paid back to the clubs by the hotel chains become larger than in tier/division B and consequentially than in tier/division C, try in every way possible to maintain or climb to the next tier.

As such, the reward is no longer the long-term formation of footballers, or the "process", as Marcelo Bielsa would say "the way in which the individual players and the team improve", but rather materially it is to win.

And here we are at a crucial point: how do you get the win at youth level? What is the fastest and most direct way to get to the finish line? Develop a technical game with creativity at the base working individually on the player OR resort to the physical aspect, the bigger / more powerful / faster boys often born in the early part of the calendar year? Which one is the most profitable system in the short term?

This brings us to the point where players are recruited if they are 4-5 inches taller than teammates and opponents, or can “cover more ground” than their peers, often poached by a club from another in questionable ways, because they are physically dominant and can win matches on their own.

In the most important phase for the technical and tactical development of the boys, often clubs cease to work on them, with the required time and the necessary patience, but rather look to cross the finish line by taking the shortest route. Apparently, everyone is happy (except the boys, but often they don't even realize it): the clubs collect money, the parents dream, the coaches win, and thus the mechanism feeds itself, but then comes the time for the professional level.

At this point the professional club that evaluates the young player doesn't care how many games he won at youth level and instead demands an already formed and ready to compete professional player. Just like a corporation which hires a newly graduated engineer will expect him to do a job and won’t care anymore about his college grades, in a similar fashion, a professional team will want players ready to compete immediately. Only this time though is for real.

And here lies the main issue. Many US raised footballers, or better said many potential footballers, are not ready when making the jump to pro. They don’t know how to dribble or cross in the way is expected of a winger, or mark as it is expected by a pro defender, and often are not even able to control the ball as it’s expected by a pro footballer.

As for the others, the big/athletic ones who thrived at youth level, they seldomly establish themselves at the pro level. They were uniquely the Trojan Horse to enter the city, meat for slaughter, the mean to an end of a system founded on business and winning.

This is part of the reason why we regularly see MLS teams presenting starting lineups where 8-9 players are foreign. LAFC, a recent champion of MLS being the best example. The matter is so bad that often MLS clubs will find better value and better footballers even in places like Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama, small countries with extremely limited resources but doing enough to produce some MLS level players that are better equipped than 99% of elite American youth club players.

Ever wondered why the US soccer system hardly produces talents? Why one of only few American talents, Clint Dempsey, grew up in a small East Texas town, where he fell in love with soccer by playing pick-up games in the street with his siblings and Hispanic kids who had no access to big youth clubs? Why the national team is mostly composed of players who have been formed in Europe like Pulisic? Simple: because in US youth soccer there is not enough time, and youth clubs want to win immediately. In fact, what happens if a 14 year old boy tries to dribble and loses the ball and the opponent team scores on counterattack? Or if a central midfielder tries to control into space and loses the ball letting his defense exposed?

These are aspects of the game that need to be trained, and that require a lot of patience. That winger will miss ten, twenty, thirty dribbles before mastering how and when to do them; the other, the central midfielder will miss a touch on the ball a hundred times before learning to do it like Iniesta. And so I ask you, if Iniesta had been born in the US and played youth soccer for one of many big clubs in this system and not in Barcelona, where since eight year old they teach you to play that way, not caring whatsoever about winning or the result, would he have become Iniesta?

At youth level “play to win” is synonymous of the death of creativity, death of personality to take players on 1 v 1, and death of talent, and if we add the pressure, and the responsibilities a teenager is overloaded with on a soccer field, and that “dribbles and creative plays have to be tried only when strictly necessary” it is a recipe for disaster. As why should a 13-year-old know when or what is strictly necessary? Often at that age they don’t even fully understand their position but here too we have the obsession of formations and positions, and we keep lowering the age at which the players must be locked into a role and play under the pressure of tactical responsibilities.

Afterall, regardless of the above, talent cannot be taught but rather it can only be indulged. And it’s not only the youth soccer programs and academies’ fault. Look for instance at what happens in Spain, with no need to even mention Brazil or Argentina, considering US is much more similar to Europe on a social/economic level. You will see that at the beaches, in the small-town squares, kids play soccer. In the summer, you will not be able to find a single Spanish beach where soccer is not played, a sacred tradition that just doesn’t exist here.

Let’s be clear, I am not trying to change reality and the country’s culture, but highlight how by playing on the street the best talents have been formed, free of expressing themselves, without pressure to win, and forced to adapt themselves to contingent circumstances (in an alley or in a park the ball never bounces in the same way, but every time you have to know how to control it). Here instead, we expect the kids to develop the same amount of talent by “releasing the ball quick”, only playing on nice fields, when it’s not raining and when the weather conditions are ideal. Why are trainings and games cancelled when the field is wet or it’s raining? To preserve the ideal conditions of the fields? This does not happen in Europe or South America.

Technical quality cannot be considered secondary. Physical strength, which perhaps characterizes the more developed children, will eventually disappear and level to that of the rest. We must consider the youth sector as a cradle where we build the talents of the future, as is done in Spain or in other countries. If you have a lightweight boy with a great technique and understanding of the game, you cannot discard him or play him less and favor a more physically developed one. To the contrary, you must work on his development and wait for him to catch up physically. American youth soccer needs to change. What is the point of only focusing on the more physically mature kids within an age group to win a tournament or a league title?

So, let's all take a step back and start from the basics. Let me launch here a revolutionary proposal, which the professionals in the sector will have the pleasure of mocking but I have the duty to propose. Let’s abolish tiers, rankings and divisions up to a certain age; or at least let’s find the way for winning not to become a constant nuisance and the primary objective.

Enough with greedy club directors and win at all costs stressed-out coaches. Let’s work on the boys with patience, let’s bring this sport back to where it belongs, and that is passion, and give everyone their needed time: to the coaches the time to teach soccer for the medium-long term development, to the boys the time to learn without excessive pressure or responsibilities, and to the youth clubs the time to work on development, which will be rewarded by training compensation and solidarity payments if they can place at the pro levels the boys on whom they have invested time, commitment and energy.

Finally, an appeal, from the heart to many parents: I understand you. We pour all of our hopes and sometimes frustrations on our children, but I understand you. One out of thousands makes it and so why not your son, he is so good and then come on... He's your child, he's the best. Maybe if you push him a little he can crown yours .., sorry, his dream! So take him to the biggest and most famous youth club. After all, in the small youth club by where you live, a good player will never be noticed (are you sure of this? Plenty of stories around the world tell us otherwise, but don’t worry about it). Maybe he will have a little less fun, but if you want to get there, sacrifices must be made.

It doesn’t matter if the coach at the youth team near home does it for pure passion, if he prefers to work with the boys at cost of going home to his family late at night, if he is desperately in love with the ball. An elite youth club is elite, they have the best professionals and the right people: it is the perfect stage for your child after all. So take him there to train, grind hundreds of miles, get stuck in traffic. Waste gas, money, time, energy. Park, and wait while watching the training. Travel on weekends out of state for away games against clubs of your same city. Use all your vacation time for out of state travel. Do not make friends with the other parents who are your competition. In the meantime, talk to someone that matters, intercept the coach off the field, make contacts, discuss with an agent: you are chasing his dream, you have to make sacrifices.

But I want to ask you a question. Assuming your child might actually make it, have you ever talked to him? Deeply, not superficially. Are you sure that this is his dream, or that it always has been? Yes, in short, that it is not your aspiration, the one you glued on him years ago, when you saw that he had "talent" ... After all, most kids in US are introduced to soccer at an early age, it should be a true rebel in his blood, your son, to send you to hell at twelve. And then, are you sure that you can exploit the system and that you are not the gullible who help feed it, that rotten system?

So take a step back: be revolutionary in your own small way. Stop pouring broken dreams on your children and forget about those "elite" youth clubs in which they will have to share the playing time with thirty other indoctrinated kids. Forget the coaches with drool from their mouths, forced to win and all those who populate that version of youth soccer.

Give up the big club gear and raise your son in the local youth club, with a coach who takes to heart your son’s growth in an environment that, if you are lucky, will still be based on passion. You will see that the boy will improve more in this environment than in the "elite" club: it seems strange, but it is so. And if he is really good, rest assured that someone will talk about it, someone else will notice, and in the meantime you will have saved hundreds of hours of traffic, thousands of dollars of gas, hotels and flights tickets, and above all you will not have made useless, indeed harmful, sacrifices. For today mass is ended; go in peace.

— Simone Ghirlanda