There are many reasons to be impressed by the growth of soccer in the US. A poll by Gallup found that 7% of Americans now cite soccer as their favorite sport. Its popularity now matches that of baseball in so much that while other sports seem to be falling out of favor, soccer has attained its highest fondness with the American public. Over the past seven years, Major League Soccer has witnessed a 27% rise in interest. However, US soccer still lags behind Europe. Wide disparities in player development and competitiveness persist despite attempt by federations and Major League Soccer clubs to brand the game as having arrived. US soccer youth players, with the exception of a handful who make it to European leagues, are not yet of a quality that light up stadiums and produce magic on the biggest stages.
The problems of US youth soccer could be categorized into four sections:
- structure of youth divisions
- treating players as athletes
- coaching system and ease of acquiring coaching licenses
- playing conditions
- team values
Structure of Youth Divisions
While recreational soccer provides good ground for children to become familiar with the sport, it cannot become the final destination. There has to be a system of progressing from divisions of recreational soccer to participating in competitive travel teams. Playing in divisions that are competitive provide the motivation for a player to improve individual performance so as to be able to accelerate up the career ladder. US Soccer teams focused on recreational divisions also have the problem of being focused on accruing revenue without strong interest on nurturing skills and helping talent blossom. Within this environment, players are mere means for the team owner to make money, rather than young soccer enthusiasts with the potential to develop into superstars.
Soccer Players, Not Athletes
But even where some attention is paid to the players, they are not treated as soccer players in the right sense but as athletes. This is, in general, a problem of perception given that the more sports activities in the US at the moment are built around the values of speed, power and physical size. However, this also reveals a deeper lack of proper coaching. In soccer, you do not necessarily win by running more but by playing smarter. Game intelligence, quick decision making, control and creativity, are much more important than the exulted virtues of running, pushing, kicking and playing hard that tend to be borrowed from football.
While a large number of people can get fit and run, not everyone could be smart enough to be a soccer player. US soccer suffers for lack of the strategy and mental work that should go into developing players. There should greater emphasis on letting players express themselves, tapping into their natural gifts and inclinations. Soccer players are much like artists and rightly should have the liberty to explore their ideas with the ball without the pressures that come with being of the right physical build. The fewer the restrictions on being able to play freely, the easier it will be for players to do what comes naturally to them.
Of course young players need direction but not the type common at recreational games at most American soccer pitches. Often, the parents do not have sufficient understanding of the game, or may be applying football rules to soccer. Nevertheless, they have become coaches by some means and, hence, get to shout instructions from the sidelines. This does not bode well for player development because soccer has its own rules and when they are not followed, results will be sub-optimal. It is too easy to obtain a weekend coaching license, as compared to a more rigorous system in Europe where badges are graded in levels and require greater time commitment. A system where just anyone can obtain a coaching license after a couple of weekends hardly leads to an environment of quality coaching. And as already mentioned, young players must be guided from an early age on the particular technical and tactical requirements for playing soccer effectively.
While soccer has to be played in safe conditions, it is a drawback on the sport to insist on perfect conditions. Soccer is held back in the US by a well-intentioned but wrongly-directed fixation on how wonderful a pitch is for playing soccer. This takes away from the spontaneity and fun that comes from playing soccer. Soccer players from other parts of the world, especially Latin America, learn many skills and capabilities simply by being able to play, regardless of the weather condition. Safety should still be paramount but if US Soccer is to grow, it cannot become an inhibitor to innovation and adventure. Whether it is very hot or cold outside, rainy days or bad traffic evenings; none of these imperfect conditions should be an abiding excuse against regular practice, as it is only practice that makes perfect .
Total Commitment from Parents Is Mandatory
Beyond structural and coaching deficits, another factor that must be considered in addressing the disparity, is the degree of commitment from parents. In order for US youth soccer to progress further, parents must demonstrate a full commitment to providing the necessary support on and off the field inclusive of driving duties and purchasing of gears. Not only is what mom or dad says is important, but more so what they do. By supporting a player who desires to go out and put a few extra touches on the ball, helping them balance multiple life obligations including the academics and ensuring players honor the commitments made to their team, parents show the importance of commitment to soccer, thereby teaching a powerful lesson to their kids.
To match up to their European and South American peers, American youth soccer players have to start playing soccer earlier. The organization of the sport around having perfect conditions and requiring loads of money needs to give way for a conscious effort to get more kids out in the parks playing and having fun. After all the studies on sports science are done for improving performance and capacity, there have to be actual opportunities to play. Environments for young players to play together and grow into teams will be the route for ensuring 2018 was just a blip and not the new normal.