By Charlie Inverso
I shouldn’t be so grumpy.
This is the best World Cup that I can remember and, in so many ways, soccer has improved light years in this country since we first qualified for the World Cup in 1990.
But I love this game and the people involved with it way too much to pretend that we are reaching our full potential as a soccer nation. We should be doing better!
So if I find a lamp and a genie grants me 10 wishes for United States soccer – yes, I know three is the norm, but I’m taking liberties – here’s what my first five would look like:
Soccer was less about making money and more about developing players and playing for the pure love of the game.
The United Soccer Coaches Annual Convention is the largest gathering of “soccer enthusiasts” in the country. This year’s event in Philadelphia drew over 12,000 attendees. However, it became very obvious upon entering the convention center that the number of businessmen and women far outnumbered the true soccer purists. Very sad.
There is nothing wrong with pay to play. Some of my closest friends, colleagues and our assistant coaches are paid to coach teams anywhere from ages U8-U18. They are worth every penny. But there are scores of charlatans charging substantial coaching fees and preying on un-informed parents.
What is just as disturbing are the number of parents who expect a return on their “investment’ from these coaching fees in the form of a college scholarship. That’s not a given. It still comes down to skill, and the right people cultivating it. Just like there are good and bad soccer ‘trainers’, there are also good and bad tournaments and camps.
Make no bones about it, there is plenty of coin to be made in this country but it has taken a turn in the wrong direction.
During the early 70s through the mid 80s, Steinert High’s Fink brothers had one of the most illustrious soccer careers within one family in New Jersey scholastic history – seven boys who combined for five state titles and all played college soccer. They learned by playing pick-up games and in Hamilton rec and travel leagues. In today’s culture Harold Sr. and Annie Fink would have to shell out $21,000 per year for their sons to play competitive soccer.
My friends involved with baseball and other sports say it is just as bad. In soccer, it is spinning out of control.
Less kids without the means to pay can still play soccer
There is nothing wrong with “Pay to Play” but there is definitely something wrong with “Can’t Play Because You Can’t Pay.”
I believe that we have populations of kids in our inner cities who don’t even know soccer exists. This is sad enough but we also have a large number of places that are underserved soccer communities. By underserved, I am referring to areas where kids want to play. But they either cannot afford to come through the development system or do not have the most important criteria for coming through the system…a car. You can make it through youth soccer for 10-12 years without skills, but only if you can find transportation to the fields.
I drove past Greenwood School in Hamilton during recess and thought what a wonderful venue for a soccer program this would be. There are schools in Hightstown, Ewing and other towns that would be great fits for an underserved program. There is just so much potential talent and it can’t all be developed via street soccer. At some point, kids need a higher level of play and coaching. Coaching underserved kids is also good for the soul. (Editor’s note: Inverso is one of the founders of Mooch Soccer, a program that dedicates itself to coaching and developing Trenton’s inner-city youth).
For those wondering how to start an underserved program, there are several steps:
A) Nike used to have a marketing slogan “Just do it”. That would be my advice. Don’t put it off or try to get too organized.
B) Petition our highest associations to get more involved. U.S. Soccer, The United Soccer Coaches, MLS clubs and U.S. Developmental Academy teams can all be doing more. I will argue that point with anyone. State associations should all have underserved directors of coaching. I haven’t done the research but I am not sure this position even exists.
Sadly, it is not surprising there is a dearth of underserved soccer programs. You can’t make much money coaching underserved kids.
I have bashed enough ears on this topic over the years so I will stop here. However, if you would like to share your thoughts or are interested in starting such a program please send me an email.
Everyone worked together for the betterment of the sport
Simply put, if the corporate/business people would do what they do best and leave the soccer decisions (particularly player development) to the soccer people we would be among the world’s elite.
Iceland did it. So did France, Germany, Belgium and tons of other nations who thought they were not maximizing their talents. Unfortunately, what we have in the U.S. soccer culture is 1,000 people on 1,000 different pages.
If administrators stuck to what they do best and leave the soccer decisions (particularly player development) to those who have been in the trenches, we could be amongst the world’s elite.
We understood the importance of skill and how it’s developed
Our players are not technical enough, but that could change if we understood skill a little better.
No doubt about it, soccer skill is hard to develop and most skill is acquired between the ages of 6-14. However, most kids that quit playing soccer do so during puberty because they lack skill. Without skill the game is no longer fun and would be similar to playing golf with baseball bats. It just becomes too frustrating.
There is an interesting book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, who has spent countless hours on how talent (music, sports, intellectual, etc.) is developed in kids.
Coyle’s research found one of the essential elements of talent development is repetition. Repetition is boring, tedious and annoying and not a staple of the American youth. Repetition obviously is essential in cultivating musical talent and because practice is boring, music teachers have told me there are less wannabe musicians than ever before. With all the competition we face for kids’ time and attention; we need to find a pragmatic program to develop skill that is also stimulating but doesn’t compromise the difficult task of developing skill.
Looking for examples?
At least four players (Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Emmerson Hyndman, Eddie Gaven) were disciplined enough to perform countless hours of repeated technical training as youngsters. This time commitment was a huge factor in their careers as professionals and internationals. These players had drive but were not typical youth players. They all had the benefit of having fathers (or grandfathers) who were coaches and knew how important repetition and developing the most essential skills were.
One of the biggest obstacles for completing repetitions is time. Kids are busier than ever before and also travel further to play soccer/sports than ever before. Think about how much more free time to skill train one would have if they weren’t in a car for five hours a week.
The counter-argument would be that there is a definite need for travel in order to play against better competition. No argument from me, but smart planning while looking for better competition is more important than entering a prestigious tournament. I believe that all youth sports should find a way to cap the amount of hours that kids spend in a car.
Would it be hard to enforce? Of course, but would it serve to benefit kids? Absolutely. I believe this mandate has to come from the top of our organization and we should develop something called a Community Coaching License which emphasizes how to make soccer better in your own community. I will talk about this in the next article.
The World Cup becomes a catalyst for “casual fans” to become more passionate about the sport
I can remember telling people who enjoyed recent World Cup tournaments to watch something called the English Premier League. Not necessary any longer. I constantly run into people who know way more about the EPL than I do.
TV numbers for this World Cup are quite good especially considering it is played during weekdays and the U.S. is not involved. Viewing numbers for the Champions League, EPL and La Liga are increasing as well. The stereotypes and stigmas of the past regarding soccer are gone. Americans will watch the sport, especially if it is a good level of play. We love watching other Americans succeed. When we start producing more Chrisitan Pulisics and increase the talent in our player pool we will have a lot of ‘fans’ and they won’t be ‘casual’
I do want to mention that any soccer fan’s bucket list should include attending a professional game in an international setting. It is a slightly different experience than going to an American sporting event.
You won’t regret it. In fact, you will do it again.