The Biggest Weakness in American Youth SoccerPosted: September 23, 2013
The other day I stumbled upon an article written for Fox Sports by Leander Schaerlaeckens, an established soccer writer who has written for many US publications. In this article he writes about the problems with American youth soccer. You can read the article here if you wish, I’ll be discussing it in this post and will let you in on it anyway.
Certainly all is not perfect with the youth soccer system in this country. For one, its a conglomeration of different organizations with different backgrounds who have different goals for their participants. Sort of like a melting pot of expectations which have sprung up in an atmosphere of entrepreneurship. Wow, who would have expected that in the United States? While this is simply the American way of doing things, it is quite different from the system in most other countries. Most youngsters in the world learn their early soccer lessons in the streets, in the yards, on the pavement, on local fields. They learn in groups of 2 or 3 or maybe 5 or 6. They play with everything from good soccer balls to rolled-up rags. When they do join a club, it’s a club which runs under the control of their local “football association” which is a part of their national association which comes under the auspices of FIFA. FIFA controls virtually all the soccer played in the world. However, in the USA , while most of the organized soccer is part of the United States Soccer Federation – affiliated with FIFA – a great deal of the game is played by other organizations which are independent of world-wide soccer.
One of those organizations is the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). Founded in Torrance, Ca in 1964, AYSO has been on the scene since the soccer boom began. In the early days, when the USSF was just getting its act together in regards to youth involvement, AYSO represented a viable option (sometimes the only option) for a youngster wanting to play the game in the western USA. Many of our early national stars had an AYSO experience when growing up. The organization operates on 6 basic philosophies, most of which are certainly admirable. Everyone plays; Good sportsmanship is required; Positive interaction between coaches and players; these are all excellent driving concepts. The last philosophy is player development…now this is what we are all after, isn’t it? Certainly , Mr. Schaerlaeckens is. He talks about the USA not producing the quality players that a country with our size and economics should produce and relates that shortcoming to our youth system. Again, player development is an admirable goal. But when taken in context with two other philosophies, problems arise. All applicants are accepted regardless of talent and experience – nothing wrong with this idea, everybody has to start somewhere. Balanced teams – now this is a principle that is largely ignored by other groups and seems to be great idea, after all who wants to see those 7-0 blowouts that bore the winners and depress the losers? To accomplish this principle AYSO redistributes the players on a regular basis, changing their coaches and teammates so that the local league is balanced. And that is a direct contradiction with the philosophy of player development. This means that the best players play on teams with the worst players since a) everybody is accepted and b) teams are redistributed. Good soccer players figure things out quickly and younger players are perhaps quicker than older players. They learn fast that if they pass the ball to certain teammates they are doing a disservice to their team. While the better player might give the new kid a chance to get the ball during an easy win, these are balanced teams, remember? All games are close, are competitive, and no player of any age is going to take a chance on losing the game by playing the ball to a teammate who is likely to make a mess of it. In addition, there are limits on the player development of a youngster who isn’t playing with others of at least equal skills. How does one learn to deliver and receive a wall pass if teammates are incapable of making a return? It is accepted world-wide that to truly advance, top players must play with and against other top players. AYSO contradicts itself with its philosophies of balance and acceptance when combined with player development.
All this is readily apparent to quality players and their parents. As a result ,in many localities the more serious player either leaves AYSO after a time, or doesn’t join it in the first place. AYSO has become the bottom rung of soccer quality in many places and the participation numbers reflect that placement. 650,000 AYSO players nationwide versus 3 million USSF youth players represents a near 500% greater size of the FIFA-affiliated group. I speculate that AYSO isn’t bothered by this. They have their goals and their philosophies and they are doing an excellent job of living up to those to the benefit of many kids. I know about this from personal experience. My granddaughter began playing the game as an 8 year old in a “recreational league” here in Las Vegas. She was placed with a team in a league of girls none of whom had any real experience. As the team had no coach, her mom (whom played at the U. of Maryland as a college player and was a decorated high school player) and the Soccer Yoda co-coached the team. Over 5 seasons the girls went from girls trying to play the game to becoming actual soccer players. During this span they learned the game, developed their skills and after a couple seasons of getting the basics down, they went on a tear ,losing only 2 games of their last 31. Now remember, this was a recreational league. At no time did we think that we were competitive with the local soccer clubs and indeed ,we lost a couple players to those clubs. My granddaughter, though, developed other interests despite becoming quite a decent player at that level. She dropped the sport for a season but a friend told her about AYSO and playing with her friend was appealing. As a result, she is playing this season and enjoying it. She is also overall the top player on the team ( I might be a bit biased). Her prior team would make mincemeat of her present AYSO team and that was a recreational team which couldn’t compete with the clubs. All involved with the AYSO here seem very happy with it, but make no mistake, there are no future Mia Hamms or Alex Morgans coming from this league if the girls playing don’t leave for better competition. AYSO finally recognized this and in 2009 , 45 years after original formation, they introduced the FLEX program for better players. But those contradictory philosophies are still there, so the same problems exist, just at a higher level.
This is not a criticism of AYSO, it is what it is and does a fine job of providing a fun, balanced experience for lower level players. The problem is that Mr. Schaerlaeckens, after coaching teenagers for a few seasons of AYSO in Westchester ,NY , has used his experience as a indictment of the whole youth system in the country. “And from observing the practices at the bottom of the sport I cover, I learned a great deal about the genesis of some systemic issues that persist at the top of it in this country.” Sorry , but the comparison between a below- recreational league experience in NY that practices for an hour once a week and plays 6 to 8 games a season with the upper level elite teams springing up across the country is ridiculous. It is possible for a pre-teen youth in this country to experience a formal soccer education equal to any in the world. I have seen pre-teen soccer camps in the Netherlands and our kids are just as good at that level. Granted , at the teen levels, we may drop some as we don’t have lots of professional teams with established academies churning out potential professionals. For one thing, our educational priorities in this country are a bit different than in many other nations. (That’s another discussion). But one thing is certain, the reason as Mr. Schaerlaeckens says,” …the United States continues to lag behind in the production of sufficiently skilled and savvy soccer players to compete with the very best, as its economic and demographic makeup suggests it should.” , is not AYSO or any supposed relationship with its program and the top USSF youth programs. IF there is a lag, it is not due to our still developing youth system. It is far more likely due to the fact that soccer is not the main sport cultural activity in this country, that youngsters still don’t play hours and hours of street soccer. Although Fox Sports is to be commended for its commitment to the sport, it is difficult to understand how they could publish an article that clearly shows a lack of understanding of our youth system. Would they publish an article about a local low-level church basketball league and relate that to our lack of domination over the last several World Basketball Championships ? Perhaps one of the problems is our media, that there are still national-level sportscasters who know little about soccer or who actually belittle it, that a far-off-base article is published by a national media outlet. Let’s face it, until our sport becomes a national pastime with a passionate following of millions of soccer-knowledgeable fans both following and participating ,we may always “lag” in producing large numbers of world-class players. But, if we can develop about……say 20 or so who can compete with any in the world… that may be all we need. And if we can’t, despite having everything else going for us…..well, go ask Mexico.