A Look Into the United States' Youth Soccer Structure
On October 10, 2017, the U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT) lost to Trinidad and Tobago in their final match of World Cup Qualifying. The 2018 World Cup would be the first the United States failed to qualify for since 1986.
The immediate reaction was of sheer disbelief and outrage, summarized by former Sports Illustrated soccer reporter Grant Wahl as “the most surreal and embarrassing night in US soccer history.”
A lot of finger pointing happened within the next few months: pointing at the coaching within the country, at player development (or lack thereof) and at the soccer culture in general. And it’s a fair point — of the starting eleven the United States featured against Trinidad and Tobago, only three (Christian Pulisic, Deandre Yedlin and Bobby Wood) played in the “Top 5” soccer leagues in Europe. Of those three, only Yedlin came up through an MLS youth academy.
This is where all the questions about coaching and development stem from, but why exactly has the youth soccer system failed to produce elite talent on a worldwide stage? Three words:
Pay To Play.
The pay-to-play model is the norm for most youth sports in America: children begin playing sports recreationally at a young age, fall in love with the sport and want to get better. To get better, you have to receive more specialized practice and play against better competition, for which you have to pay for. And this is no small amount of money either, as Jason Smith, Director of Recruiting at Next College Student Athlete, estimated the minimal cost for travel club soccer for both boys and girls at around $3000 per year.
Mark Nash, who grew up playing amateur soccer in England before moving to Long Island to coach at a youth level, sees this as a big issue in the current structure.
“In the United Kingdom, if you’re seen as an elite player, everything is done for you. You don’t pay a penny,” Nash said. “Here [in the United States] it’s like an upside down pyramid: the higher you go, the more you pay.”
But for the best of the best lies a structure identical to that of European countries.
“The only exception would be in MLS academies,” Nash explained.
All 27 teams in the MLS, America’s top men’s soccer league, have youth academies starting at the u-13 level. By 2023, that number will expand to 29, with a 30th team likely to be announced within the coming months.
This is clearly a step in the right direction. As MLS.com writer Matthew Doyle wrote in a blog, "It is a virtuous cycle for MLS teams, and if done well, it is a sustainable one that benefits them."
And for promising soccer players, it's a system that benefits them in return: top-level coaching, training and competition, and world-class facilities at low to no cost.
"The coaching, it's the nitty-gritty things that get magnified," said Haris Hussaini, a wingback for the Vancouver Whitecaps' u19 team.
Haris Hussaini joined the Whitecaps Academy in Spring 2021 after years at pay-to-play clubs in Canada. (Image credit: Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
“Here [in the United States] it’s like an upside down pyramid: the higher you go, the more you pay.”
"Back then [before the Whitecaps' Academy], it was more positional training," Hussaini explained, saying there is now a bigger emphasis on tactical aspects of the game during the four days of training per week.
Hussaini's position with the Whitecaps academy set him up for a bright future in the sport: the 18 year old has already been in contact with professional clubs and Division I universities to continue his playing career, and will likely represent his native country of Afghanistan on the national team level in the coming years. But Hussaini knows his journey to this level wasn't easy.
"When I became a training player at Mountain [United FC]… I was really behind some of these kids [in my progression]," said Hussaini, who started playing organized soccer at an older age.
"Grade 10, I would train everyday at the school fields. And it was really embarrassing because when the kids left school … they'd be like 'Haris man, why do you train every day, it's so pointless' and laugh at me. It was hard to overcome that barrier but when I did, that's when everything fell into place."
Now on the precipice of a professional career, Hussaini uses his experience as motivation to other young soccer players who might not be on the radar of professional academies in North America.
"I'm just trying to show people that it's never too late to make it, if you're passionate and hard working and believe in yourself, anything is possible," Hussaini said.
He's right: players don't even have to go the traditional academy route in order to have a successful professional career, whether that's in soccer or not. College is a feasible option for many, and the talent pool at the NCAA level has only been increasing in the past few seasons — a development in large part due to non pay-to-play/low fee programs associated with the professional soccer leagues in the United States.
Even before the 2018 USMNT debacle against Trinidad, the pay-to-play model had drawn criticism from some of the most influential people associated with U.S. Soccer. In fact, just three days before that game, former USMNT player and current ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman said this:
“When you really look at this country, this pay-to-play system is the first thing I would look at. Now I’m not saying to use all $100 million [of a U.S. Soccer Federation surplus] on it, but at some point the sport in the United States has to stop becoming an elite sport.”
The United Soccer League (USL), which governs the lower tiers of professional soccer in the United States, just launched its own academy league in February 2021. This now provides professional and low/no-cost training to thousands of kids across the United States.
Although this is all a good step forward, there is still a lot of work to be done on the pay-to-play front — especially in the women's game.
How does pay-to-play impact women's soccer?
The United States Women's National Team is one of the most dominant forces in international soccer, winning four World Cups and earning gold at four Olympics. Through Title IX, women's sports have received equal funding through scholastic institutions (middle school through college). Because of this, the United States had over 1.5 million registered female youth soccer players in FIFA's last "Big Count"— almost four times more than the next country, Canada.
But outside of school soccer, which isn't nearly as highly regarded as club teams, pay-to-play can become a problem. Club teams are highly selective, with more fees added on for those with better competition and further travel, and the NWSL — the top domestic women's soccer league — doesn't have a homegrown player requirement. This leaves promising women's soccer players in a situation where they can't just play with the best, they have to pay with the best.
Morgan Elliot, a freshman center back on Stony Brook University's Women's Soccer team, experienced this at Long Island's SUSA Academy.
"Sacrifices had to be made, and it was difficult," Elliot said."You can't put that on you parents and that's stress on a kid... but you have to pay to play — that's the world we live in today."
For this reason, the system has drawn criticism from some of the biggest stars in U.S. Women's Soccer.
“It’s a very inexpensive sport and the fact that we’ve made youth soccer in the U.S. more of a business than a grassroots sport is, I think, detrimental to the growth of the sport in the U.S.,” Alex Morgan, a 2x World Cup champion and the 5th leading goal scorer in USWNT history, said in 2019.
Hope Solo, who has the 10th most appearances all-time for the USWNT, said in 2018 that: "My family would not have been able to afford to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today."
The reality of pay-to-play, especially for youth women's soccer, is that the system goes beyond just the club and travel fees — something Charlotte Guillory, a midfielder at Long Beach State University, has experienced herself.
“I was from Berkeley (California) and through the tunnel was a richer area. There were a lot of kids with private trainers, they get more attention on the ball, they’d stay after and have a private trainer for their offseason," Guillory said. "From a young age, they were kinda groomed to be better."
In states like California, soccer is a year-round sport. This means more events like showcases and tournaments with college scouts in attendance, but also means more money has to be spent. Tabitha LaParl, a California native and midfielder at Pepperdine University, thinks money shouldn't be as prominent of a figure in the youth game.
"There's a lot of players that should be on these elite teams that just don’t have the money for it," LaParl said. I feel like because of that, it just limits so much in our nation and it could be a lot better. It shouldn’t just be limited to money because money can’t get you everywhere."
But in the United States, most youth sports employ a pay-to-play model, causing low-income children to be six times more likely to quit organized sports due to their costs. Youth soccer is just a microcosm of that.
"I used to play lacrosse and I loved it, but you have to come to a point where you have to decide," Elliot said when referencing sacrifices she made while paying for club soccer.
Yet for players like Elliot, Guillory and LaParl who stuck with club soccer came a return on their investments, both at the club level and beyond.
"I definitely think the resources came back to me," Elliot said about the cost. "I was provided with seminars on college, the [recruiting] process [and] my coaches helped me out a lot."
"And the gear is great too, don't get me wrong!," Elliot said with a laugh.
Guillory, a former top 100 recruit, and LaParl, a member of the U.S. Youth Women's National Team, were both accomplished players before college, but both give a lot of credit to their respective club teams for their development.
"I was really lucky I ended up with a really good coach — he ended up coaching me for the next 10 years of my life," Guillory said of her youth experience. "He had me to go to a better club (Lamorinda United) in the area that was known for pushing players to college, and that took me here [to Long Beach State]."
LaParl played for So Cal Blues of the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) for 10 years, winning five national championships.
"It creates such a great opportunity for girls all around the country... to play their best soccer," LaParl said of the ECNL system, which hosts regional championships before their annual national championships. "It's super competitive and I think it's a great source for young girls to get... opportunities looking for colleges too."
Although the pay-to-play system has come under scrutiny, there haven't been many concrete efforts to change it in women's soccer because of its success. Why change a system that not only gets youth players college soccer placements, but also makes money? It's hard to refute from an American standpoint. But from an English viewpoint, especially those who have played soccer in the United States, the system couldn't be stranger.
An Outside Perspective
For English people, soccer — or football, as almost everyone else around the world calls it — is their sporting culture.
"When people ask me what [the culture] is like, I tell them 'it's life or death,'" Harry Beasley, a goalkeeper from Essex, England who plays for Adelphi University, explained. "From a very young age, it's ingrained that football... is the one sport you play."
This is, of course, is in wide contrast to the American model, where young kids are urged not to specialize in a sport too early. But in England, which lays claim to the origins of soccer and is home to the English Premier League (the highest earning soccer league in the world), it's an all hands on deck effort to ensure low costs and high levels of success.
Chloe Fletcher, a defender from Maidenhead, Brookshire, England who plays at Abilene Christian University, saw a community aspect at her first stop in organized soccer, Denham United Ladies FC.
"[There were] loads of different age groups, loads of different managers who wanted the best from you," Fletcher said over a Zoom call. "Any girl could go and play, parents would take over and be the coaches."
"I think being able to play for a club like Denham... set me out to continue progressing to where I am now," Fletcher added.
Fletcher went on to play for the youth academies of Reading FC and Watford, both of which are currently in the higher divisions of the FA Women's structure. Throughout her youth career, one thing was notably different than her American counterparts: the cost.
The current English Women's FA structure. Reading FC play in the Women's Super League, while Watford play in the Women's Championship. (Credit: The Athletic)
"The only cost was around £200 ($265), and that was for everything," Fletcher explained. "That was for the training, for the kits (jerseys), for the facilities you're playing in and stuff like that."
The English Football League system is designed for upward mobility. For both the player and the club, the promotion/relegation system allows for higher pay, bigger bonuses and better viewership as teams make their way up to higher divisions. It's a game where if you have the talent, you can make a name for yourself. Almost no one typifies that better than the Leicester City striker, Jamie Vardy.
Vardy started his professional career at Stocksbridge Park Steels, after being released from his academy. He earned £30 a game playing in the English Seventh Division, so to make ends meet he also worked in a carbon-fiber factory.
After impressing for two more clubs, Vardy was sold to Leicester City where he has become one of the most prolific Premier League goal scorers in the past decade and was a key part in the club's odds-defying league title in 2015-16.
"Football at home is kinda known as the 'working man's game,'" Beasley said. "All you need is a pair of boots (cleats) and a ball, that's it."
"It's a very affordable game and I think that's why it's so popular [in England], it's all-inclusive," he added. "It is very strange to me that it costs so much here."
England, a nation of just over 55 million people, has long been one of the world's leaders when it comes to producing soccer talent and are one of only eight countries to ever win a World Cup. They have had a clear development system in place for decades, and the results have been easy to see. Meanwhile the United States, with a population nearly six times that of England, has lagged behind in development. Until recently, that is.
Despite the 2018 debacle against Trinidad, the USMNT has been trending in the right direction, and that's in large part due to homegrown players and the efforts to change the pay-to-play system. In fact, of the 11 starters in the United States' resounding 2-0 win against Mexico in World Cup Qualifiers, nine had participated in a MLS youth academy or played in college.
But on the women's side where the efforts haven't been as concrete, other countries are quickly catching up to the U.S.
"[The way] the women's game has progressed over the years is amazing, and I think it's going to carry on and keep progressing because people are going to start noticing it more," Fletcher said.
The Women's Super League has become one of the premier soccer destinations, with American stars like Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath signing to play in England for higher wages and teams with better name recognition.
Essentially, development in soccer does come to money -- but also how that money is used. In the United States, the problem is that a lot of the money invested is from the players' fees, which some people can't afford.
"Some people look back and say 'Well I want to play but I can't,' and that's sad really. No one should have to go through that to play the sport that they love," Fletcher said.
In the United States, if you're unable to afford the feed and can't get scholarships to cover them, that spells the end of your youth career. There will be no Jamie Vardy story, only a sentence that reads "What if?"