Last month, I spent a week in Chile and Argentina with my family, visiting my older sister, a fellow student studying abroad. During our time in Buenos Aires, my dad and I, soccer fanatics, made sure to find a place to play against local Argentinians. As we wandered the streets of Palermo (the barrio we were staying in) with our TripAdvisor application in hand, we stumbled upon a set of turf fields, in between a street of ritzy restaurants, and a working-class apartment complex.
As organized games were being played, there was a simultaneous grill (reminiscent of an American football tailgate) to the left of the fields, complete with lots of parilla, alcohol, Argentinian pop music, and sweaty soccer players who had just finished their respective games. We received some funny looks as I attempted to navigate my way to the front of the administrative desk, and ask in my broken Spanish when the next game was being played. The American-ness oozed off of me as I accidentally referred to the campos, as soccer fields, much to the amusement of the stern-faced man behind the desk, whose day to day job did not entail dealing with strange-looking tourists like me and my dad.
We eventually partnered up with the Buenos Aires Football Amigos field (BAFA), who charged a small fee for anyone to come play 6v6 on the pristine soccer fields. We joined up with four British college students, and went up against a team of six Argentinians. The soccer we played over the next hour was sublime; the small fields and fast-paced nature of the opposing team’s possession play shocked me. The Argentinians would methodically pass the ball around in a way that I had simply never seen before, and eventually put goal after goal past us to win the match.
As we left, it astounded me how at 9 P.M. on a Friday night, it seemed like everyone in the community was at this field. There were kids as young as five or six decked out in Boca Juniors gear, all the way up to the older Argentinian men who sat near the grill, whose nights now consisted of cards, cigars, and beer, instead of the beautiful game. I thought to myself, this is precisely the reason why Argentina is one of the best footballing nations in the world.
I grew up in a quintessential American suburb, where practically everyone had the resources to play youth soccer. Soccer slowly became my sport, and I eventually joined the New England Football Club team, a club soccer team that consists of players from all over the New England region. Club soccer in the United States is expensive, as the yearly fees for my team ranged around $2000, not including the extra money spent on team gear, travel to tournaments, and other costs. To be candid, I didn’t really have any awareness of the investment that my parents made for me, nor the privilege that I had to be showcased at tournaments in front of top college coaches. My fellow players on my team came from very similar backgrounds as me; largely white, and fairly well off suburbs. While we were an enormously talented team, I can’t help but look back and think; there must have been twenty kids for every one of us that had the talent to be on that team, but not the financial resources. The question never really dawned on me: did I deserve all of this?
Since the United States Men’s Soccer team crashed out of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1986, everyone who has been a part of our youth soccer system has had to do some serious soul searching and some serious thinking about youth development. How is it possible that a country with over 300 million people (that invests billions of dollars in resources for youth sports) cannot produce 11 soccer players that can beat a country like Trinidad and Tobago, population of 1.365 million people? The truth is we have both a culture and a diversity problem in the American youth soccer system. A couple years ago, Roger Bennett and Greg Kaplan published a study analyzing the “pay-to-play” system of American youth soccer. They found that the U.S Men’s Soccer team came from socio-economic backgrounds that were significantly higher than professional football and basketball players.
As my anecdotal experience as well the empirical data suggests, our youth soccer system is simply not designed to filter in the best talent, particularly players from the inner cities. Unique to the United States is the idea of soccer as a white, suburban sport. In comparison with a country like Argentina, our pay-to-play system seems a little ridiculous. For example, the best club in Argentina, Boca Juniors, sends affiliates into neighborhood-barrios like Palermo, and Boca, to try and find talent. When they do, they bring these players into their academy system, where for the most part, all the expenses to live and play at the training ground are completely covered. All of the Boca Juniors “scouts” are normal people; they range from butchers, to teachers, and are in nearly every barrio in Argentina. As a result, Boca Juniors has brought through and sold more than 350 academy players into all of the top leagues in Europe, and South America. That type of program of seeking out the best talent regardless of socioeconomic class simply does not exist in the United States, or when it does, it does not nearly come close to meeting everyone’s needs. Julio Borge, a director of coaching at the primarily Latino Heritage Soccer Club in the Bay Area, talks about this exact problem of cost that he sees play out every day.
“In my area, we are missing a ton of kids. A lot of coaches don’t have time to see everybody. It’s expensive to try out for the big programs, so many don’t even go after the opportunity.”
Additionally, both the cultural, and structural problem that we face with American soccer today has to be taken into account. Nick Lusson, the director of the NorCal Premier Soccer Foundation, talks about the ways in which American youth soccer has stripped the creativity of many players, a very skill that is so crucial in a country like Argentina.
“This is a system that has been built with blinders to equality. We are delivering a lot of people who do soccer but not play soccer. We are making little robots. No one seems sure what to do. How do you tell players to be imaginative while at the same time fitting into the more rigid needs laid out by American coaches? No one knows.”
The experience that I had playing with BAFA in Argentina ties right into Lusson’s point. That 6v6 game was the most freedom I had enjoyed on a soccer field in my fourteen years of playing the sport. It was also the smallest field I had ever played on for a 6v6 game. It encouraged creativity in small spaces; no wonder Argentina has been able to consistently produce some of the world’s best players. In a now viral rant following the U.S’s shocking loss to Trinidad, former MLS soccer player and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman emphasized that, “we cannot do soccer the American way.” He’s right. The “American way” entails being the biggest, fastest, and strongest to be the most successful. Sure, we might have the best basketball players, or football players as a result of this methodology of training in their respective youth systems. However, this has not been a way to achieve any success on the world soccer stage. We have never won the World Cup. The MLS, our professional soccer league, does not come anywhere close to the Premier League in England, or the Bundesliga in Germany. Aside from rising star Christian Pulisic, there is not one world-class American soccer player in any of the major European leagues today.
What about the Argentinian way? The Brazilian way? The German way? These countries have proven to the world that their youth system works, and have consistently impressed on the world stage. We must seriously take a look in the mirror, and realize that something needs to change in order for us to reap the benefits of the millions of dollars that we have put into our youth system. It’s stubborn of us to believe that our youth soccer system is the best in the world. It’s not. As Twellman said in his rant, insanity is repeating the same mistakes you’ve made after they’ve failed. For all of us who have played, coached, or have been involved in the American youth soccer system, it is time for change.
Written by Ping Promrat