MICHAEL ADUBATO - Wednesday, November 11, 2020
"I have seen way too many high-quality coaches sell their coaching souls to work in youth soccer clubs with no vision or direction." - Jeremiah White, former USMNT member.
With qualification for the Qatar 2022 World Cup starting up early next year for the U.S. national team, there may be a sense of nervousness around the country. After all, they were unceremoniously eliminated from going to the 2018 World Cup in Russia by CONCACAF minnows, Trinidad and Tobago, a country with a population smaller than that of Los Angeles.
There could be a number of reasons why the team hasn't been doing so well, but for this article we'd like to focus on youth soccer. U.S. Youth Soccer is the leading organization for the game in the country and they boast "55 Member State Associations, 10,000 clubs, and leagues, and nearly one million administrators, coaches and volunteers." There are also lots of other leagues and teams throughout the country. So you would assume that there would be a huge crop to pick from in order to fast track our diamonds in the rough to the highest level.
Creating a competitive soccer team starts with turning these young children into skilled soccer players at the grassroots level. This should be done throughout the 50 states on the fields where competent and experienced coaches train motivated children to not only have fun but also learn all aspects of the game. We would think that of all those children, the U.S. Soccer Federation could build a competitive team for the world stage. So far it hasn't happened but is youth soccer the blame?
Recently Yanks Abroad caught up with Jeremiah Jackson White, a former professional who played for Wake Forest University and was the ACC Player of the Year in 2003. That was on top of being selected to the All-ACC team for three years. White then headed to Europe where he played professionally in Serbia, France, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia, and was also capped once by the U.S. national team. Jeremiah has been involved in youth soccer and is an entrepreneur in the sports and IT sectors.
My first question to Jeremiah was what has happened to the youth sports leagues such as baseball that I participated in as a child. All I needed was a glove and everything else was provided.
"It's over," he said. "You look at the cost to rent fields; unless you have a deal with the school district or the township. The cost to rent private fields or turfed fields is astronomical. There has to be a fee because there are very few free spaces and everybody thinks that they have to play on turf.
Certainly, there are townships that will let you play on grass fields and the costs will be low but everybody thinks you have to be on turf; if you're not on turf then you're not interested in being competitive and that's just the game. So these guys that own the turf are able to charge."
Immediately I got the idea that money is now playing a big part in being able to play the beautiful game. Ignoring that for now, I wanted to know how and why youth soccer is failing the children.
"You have a segment that is helping some kids, but I think it's failed other kids. Some kids want a soccer experience; they want that experience to be where maybe they can get to a point of thinking about playing college soccer," said Jeremiah.
"I think it's good for kids, middle class and up who can afford it; they just want a social experience around soccer. It's very good for them but I think we need to segment that.
We need to think okay, who does this (system) help and who does it fail. The ones that it fails are the ones that do not have the economic means to participate. Because soccer is at a certain price, there's a culture that is consistent across the country. It's very white, very middle class, upper-middle class, and wealthy. If you aren't in that economic bracket, then you aren't going to be able to participate in that culture."
It becomes obvious that many kids are being priced out of playing competitive soccer because they are in a lower income bracket. Players with potential and no money obviously will not be noticed.
Jeremiah continued: "Then there are other issues. Because it's a money-making enterprise, you have to cater to the people that are paying the money. So you have these large imbalances. I also think that very few clubs have people that can clearly articulate their value proposition. And because there is no clear value proposition, parents come into the club experience with their own expectations and it slowly devolves into mob rule.
It (then) becomes about maintaining a certain revenue because you have to make sure that the money is coming in. So what happens is that you start catering to the people who are paying the money; so you can get bullied and pushed around by the people that are paying the money. The club can easily lose its identity in the wishes and the influences of the parents. The club has to have a strong identity and strong leadership as well as a clear value proposition."
With this taking place and with so many youth teams throughout the country, I wanted to know if there were just too many clubs still popping up.
"I think people are trying different models and I think they should try different models. I think we need to continue and try to see if there are different approaches that can work. I'll never tell anyone to stop trying their own thing; I'm a committed entrepreneur and I believe in innovation through entrepreneurship," Jeremiah explained.
I was curious to know if Jeremiah was still involved in youth soccer.
"I had a youth club but I just closed up my youth club," he said. "My players, they're all seniors now and with COVID, I just felt that it was better if they merged and made some super teams where they would get more visibility because they're only going to have about six months to play and get recruited. So I had to make a hard decision to just merge because I believe that it'll give them more opportunities."
Another problem that was brought up was the quality of coaching. Teams are in the business of making money and not investing it into coaches and their ability to become better coaches.
"At the end of the day, if you're in it for money, and you've been around for a long time and you don't have an educated customer base, there's really no incentive for you to educate your coaches and do more. Nor will you pay more for better coaches," said Jeremiah.
"There's just incentive outside of the fact that you need to stay competitive with other clubs or else you'll lose coaches to those other clubs because they're paying more. They think they're doing a lot but they do the lowest common denominator. Very few clubs are trying to push the bar in terms of improving the quality of the coaching and paying for education and things like that. It just doesn't make sense for them because there is no economic incentive to do it because most clubs have uneducated parents, uneducated consumers that are already paying, so why do that?"
Back to low-income kids, do they stand a chance of even getting into one of these teams?
"They've got to be really good," he said. "Maybe some benevolent person decides to give them a scholarship and help them through. Or they better be seen by a DA early enough so that it's free and they get support. At the end of the day, it's how do they get support. It's not easy. (Having said that), most of the kids that exhibit a modicum of talent, go undiscovered."
So what does that say for U.S. soccer? Are we ever going to be competitive again?
"Yes, we will. We will, Jeremiah said confidently. "The DA's are doing a good job of finding more diverse talent and I think it's coming, particularly with more African-American kids playing soccer over football or basketball. Finding more Hispanic kids as well, I think that going to help. It's only just a matter of time.
You look at a club like LAFC where they said, we're marketing to the Hispanic community. They went in and made their intentions really clear. I think initiatives like that are taking place. And then you also have individuals that are taking the initiative and taking these kids and funding it and giving them opportunities. They're developing the kids and then passing them on. So it's happening; it's just going to take time."
Perhaps youth team administrators have to re-take control of their teams and not be dictated to by parents with deep pockets on the sidelines who are financing their operations. Perhaps the teams need to invest in their coaches or find better coaches so that the children get the best soccer education possible. Or perhaps, if talented children are there, they should look further afield to find a better fit for them, perhaps overseas."
Just to put your fears to rest, our U.S. men's national team will continue to improve.