Kieran Gilberthorpe is a YESambassador for Youth Elite Soccer and coaches Blackhawks/Ladyhawks Futbol Club full-time for Houma-Terrebonne Soccer Association in Houma, Louisiana. Here he explores the opportunities and threats to soccer development in the USA with a focus on Louisiana, and compares this with his homeland in the UK.
Along with the second amendment, the Kennedy dynasty and capitalism, there are no doubts that youth sport is deeply engrained and valued highly in American culture. To see hundreds of spectators –in excess of 1,000 on the odd occasion – rally together to fill a high school stadium and cheer a touchdown is a sight to behold. It is unlikely – unheard of even – to see this in British school sports. Yet Friday night high school football (the American version) is a spectacle and an occasion for the local community. A local community will be buoyed by a successful program. A four figure-sized audience remains to be seen for soccer but 100-150 – roughly in line with crowds at level 9 and 10 of the English football pyramid (the Midland League and Northern Counties East Leagues of this world) – is not unusual.
In this sports-mad nation, students consider it a great honour to represent their high school, no matter the sport. Supporters in the bleachers don school colours. School merchandise such as t-shirts, scarves and baseball caps are sold in local stores and even Walmart. Instead of a shabby, itchy PE kit, kids have the luxury of full Adidas tracksuits, compete in 2,000 capacity multi-sport school stadiums and practice 4-5 days per week under the supervision of foreign coaches with the highest coaching licenses the NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) and USSF (US Soccer Federation) has to offer. That is the reality for Vandebilt Catholic High School in my adopted hometown of Houma. Victory in the 2015 Division II State Championship (divisions are based on number of students) confirmed their status as a leading and respected soccer program in Louisiana.
Before continuing, it is important to distinguish the two main forms of youth soccer: competitive (U10-U18) and high school (grade 8 and above). The schedule for play is split from August to October for competitive programs, followed by a winter break (November to December) and finalises with the spring schedule from January to May – this becomes March to June for U14 and above because high school competition operates from November to February. According to Louisiana Soccer Association rules, the two cannot and must not overlap.
Barriers to participation
Like it or not, soccer is widely considered to be a predominantly middle class sport in America. There is a simple explanation for this and it is to the detriment of soccer development: soccer in Louisiana (and the majority of the USA for that matter) at the youth level requires astronomical levels of dedication and deeply lined pockets. Geographically, Louisiana is of identical size in square mileage to that of England but with a sparse one-tenth of the population. With fewer than 30,000 children enrolled in Louisiana soccer according to US Youth Soccer statistics, the implications this has are immediately apparent. The distances you cover for league play are mammoth. Though it is an extreme example, two hundred mile journeys to play a game are not uncommon. Throw in fees for the official ($25-35) and his or her two assistants ($20-25 each), tournament fees ($350-500) five or six times a year, and hotel costs for the 9am kick offs in far-flung locations. Soon it all adds up and, regrettably, I have seen firsthand how financial factors prevent kids’ participation in competitive programs.
Though it is an extreme example, two hundred mile journeys to play a game are not uncommon. Throw in fees for the official ($25-35) and his or her two assistants ($20-25 each), tournament fees ($350-500) five or six times a year, and hotel costs for the 9am kick offs in far-flung locations. Soon it all adds up.
A lack of academies as Europeans know it – ‘academies’ in Louisiana mean something else entirely – creates a vacuum that further increases the importance of programs like that of Vandebilt Catholic High School and the Olympic Development Program (ODP) in order for children to realise their dream of competing on the national and professional stage. The ODP, for instance, is packaged as a program for the highest caliber talent in the state; a select few from each age group at U10 to U18 under the guidance of elite coaches are put together to train and compete in regional tournaments versus the likes of Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas. It’s exclusive. You pay mega bucks for the privilege. Arguably, how can it be the best of the best? $75 for a tryout. Expensive? Yes, but compare that to the $1,400 they charge to join and accept a position on the roster. As a European, it is unfathomable but that is the way it is here.
In regular competitive soccer programs – at the ‘Sunday league’ grassroots level – parents are expected to stump up a fortune before a ball is kicked in coaching fees, uniform (including three jerseys), practice jersey and the optional personalised bags, water jugs and bumper stickers. This is not a criticism but an observation – in fact it is a pleasant surprise to see how celebrated youth soccer is but, in truth, half of the costs are unnecessary luxuries (a third kit!?). Compare this with Europe. It is almost unthinkable to be priced out of a sport as accessible as football. Although not one hundred percent accurate, the stereotypical professional footballer in Europe or South America is from a low socio-economic group with a fair amount of those raised on an inner-city council estate. Here in the US of A, that stereotype becomes middle class with private-school education – children of doctors, lawyers, multi-millionaires.
From an infrastructural angle, $1m pristine multi-sports complexes found in most major cities’ suburbs are outrageous and usually accommodate soccer, baseball and softball. From my point of view the limited access to changing room facilities is a shortcoming. That unrivalled buzz of a changing room on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning is perhaps my fondest off-the-field memory; an inner sanctum with a cloud of heat rub that stings the eyes; the clackety clack of studs on the tile or concrete floor; a coach delivering the half-time hairdryer treatment out of public view.
In spite of the hurdles it has to contend with, soccer has seen a rapid rise. For 2015-16, Blackhawks and Ladyhawks have a combined 350+ children signed up to their programs with more or less equal participation rates for both genders. Rewind 15 years, long before David Beckham’s historic transfer to LA Galaxy signaled an explosion in soccer this side of the pond, and participation rate was barely triple figures. You could argue there appears to be a slight dropout concern in teenage male participation. In some quarters of America, soccer is viewed as emasculating. On the contrary, girls see soccer as a route through college via a scholarship. At the time of writing the nearest option for boys from Houma is William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. For girls, there are a dozen or more in Louisiana. This is thanks to the Title IX agreement signed in 1972 to balance the participation rate of high school girls and boys. It saw a boom in girls’ sports such as volleyball and soccer. Standing in soccer’s way, however, is football, basketball and baseball. To this day, these sports monopolize male college sports programs and scholarships.
Rise of MLS
In the upper echelons of domestic soccer, the MLS has amassed 20 franchises with four future franchises in the pipeline for Miami, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Average gates for MLS games are up by 2,426 (13%) on the previous year and amounted to a whopping 21,574 in 2015, 700 shy of the average gate for Serie A in Italy and Ligue 1 of France. This 2,426 increase is greater than NBA (419), NFL (280) and MLB (67) increases put together. New franchise New York City FC recorded average gates of 29,016, and for Orlando City that figure rose to 32,847. 6 out of 10 MLS franchises recorded crowd growth in 2015. What can we learn from this evidence? Expect to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney accept a bumper retirement package as the flagship signings for Miami Beckham United in 2018. You heard it here first!
There appears to be a slight dropout concern in teenage male participation. In some quarters of America, soccer is viewed as emasculating. On the contrary, girls see soccer as a route through college via a scholarship.
Discipline in grassroots soccer seldom mimics a scene from ‘Mean Machine’. Referees are not hesitant to brandish cautions and red cards to enforce the rules in youth or adult amateur soccer, resulting in a technical brand of soccer unlike the ‘route one’ seen in British parks a la Wimbledon of the 80s and 90s. It helps that three officials are present – a referee and two assistant referees. This minor detail removes the bias of parent-officials and adds a hint of professionalism to youth soccer. On the touchline, paid coaches armed with their KwikGoal cones and clipboards – FIFA 11+ warm ups imitating the professionals are a common sight – are well respected by parents and players alike. Coaches are referred to as ‘Sir’ by the children.
Career opportunities in youth soccer
Further up the career ladder, the DOC (Director of Coaching) of a medium-size local soccer association commands a $50-100,000 salary. Granted, a DOC role has specific entry requirements such as adequate coaching licenses and the small matter of several years on the coaching circuit to serve your apprenticeship. Inevitably, the high level of pay lures UEFA A and B licensed coaches from Europe – British, Spanish, Romanian, Italian – and unsurprisingly, Texas, Florida and California are the major hubs. Private lessons with wannabe soccer stars in Texas, for example, are a goldmine and coaches can command $75-100 per hour! Alternatively for an ambitious coach there is the education route option to become the head of a college soccer program.
Regardless of ability, it cannot be denied that coaching licenses open doors. Two main providers of coaching education in the USA – NSCAA and USSF – hardly reach Louisiana at all with regards their advanced courses. For instance, the closest USSF C license course to Houma is Dallas or Austin, Texas. To add to the frustration that goes with this, USSF will introduce alterations to the course in 2016. Whereas pre-2016 the option of a nine day block with pre-course material was offered, it will strictly be delivered in two blocks. That equates to a double eight-hour trip from Houma to Austin. Add hotels to that and a $1,000 course fee. In order to progress in the career ladder, what is the alternative? An aspiring coach hits a brick wall. On a positive note, soccer governing bodies in USA such US Youth Soccer – not to be confused with US Soccer Federation (USSF) – are undeniably progressive in their recent policy updates. From 2016-17 onward, for example, age groups will be calendar year-based from January to December, as in mainland Europe, as opposed to the current US system of October to September. But what about the announcement by US Youth Soccer to ban, or restrict practice of, headers for kids age 13 and under? It is a part of the sport! How can that be removed? In five years we will see kids in helmets and leather balls will be replaced with foam.
MLS competition from other sports
Media coverage of MLS is limited and it is not rocket science to figure that out. Compare this with the recent Louisiana State University (LSU Tigers) versus Texas A&M (Aggies) showdown and television coverage worthy of the Manchester derby in the build up to a contest is available on ESPN and Fox Sports. Compare this with the UK; only one major televised university event per year springs to mind and that is the Cambridge-Oxford boat race.
Despite their amateur status, Leonard Fournette and the stars of LSU are idolized and put on a pedestal in the way stars of the Premier League are in the UK. Furthermore, the average MLB salary is $3.2m; in the NFL it is $1.9m and the NBA is $5.15m according to Forbes. Aside from the anomalies of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Kaka, the average salary in Major League Soccer is a ‘measly’ $200-300,000. Based on this, it is no surprise that youngsters aspire to be Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors, NBA) or Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers, NFL) and not Michael Bradley of Toronto FC and USMNT. To continue this line of thought logically, hand-eye coordination is easier to overcome during a growth spurt than foot-eye coordination, hinting at the reasons for the dropout rate from soccer among puberty aged children. With the competition from sports such as baseball, football and basketball it is not usual to see multi-sport 12 and 13 year olds become discouraged by the temporary clumsiness that goes with a growth spurt and drop soccer in order to focus on a hand-eye coordination sport.
Match of the Day, Soccer Saturday and Soccer AM are not things here. To my dismay there is no Sky Sports News offering their 24 hour a day service but, in fairness, soccer coverage is vast. Instead, Fox Sports, NBC and ESPN have the monopoly on MLS, Premier League, European competitions and international fixture coverage with their studio experts Alexi Lalas and Warren Barton (remember him, Newcastle United supporters?). Despite it being the pinnacle of the US domestic league with a reported worldwide TV audience of 400m viewers (ESPN’s intern mistakenly added two extra zeros), the recent MLS Cup is not at all discussed in local soccer communities. It is sad to say but MLS appears not to be held in such high regard by the kids or adults. To make matters worse, there is no MLS representative within 5 hours of my base in Houma, with FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo in neighbouring Texas. Locally, one hour north of Houma the New Orleans Jesters compete in the National Premier Soccer League (a fourth tier league) from May to July. A meagre three months! To put this in British terms, the NPSL concludes before our domestic league reaches the FA Cup second round stage!
The future of US Soccer
As time goes by and soccer rises in popularity as it inevitably will – even the most die-hard anti-soccer voices cannot deny that – the world’s sport will gradually become accessible for a wider North American audience to participate in, but first it has to suffer the inevitable growing pains. My hope is Americans will reach the realisation that soccer can be a low-cost sport to participate in and it is a sport for all. Through the formation of new soccer associations in the state and region, the mammoth travel distances will shorten.
At the professional level, MLS has recently celebrated their twentieth anniversary. The return of David Beckham, this time as a co-investor of the Miami franchise, will again magnify the spotlight on the MLS as a brand and as a competitive international league. In order for the USMNT to rise up through the world rankings and yield homegrown talent – Jürgen Klinsmann relies somewhat heavily on overseas-born-and-raised stars such as Jermaine Jones and John Brooks – it is my belief that soccer must become openly inclusive regardless of financial status and push for diversity. In my mind it is a question of what governing body US Youth Soccer and local soccer associations value most: progression or profit.