‘The Man’ United: How club teams are ruining youth soccer

High costs, hyper-competitive environment spoiling ‘the love of the game’

Chris Scott, Sports Journalism Reporter

“You pass, you shoot, you score. It’s so simple,” my coach explained to me at 10 years old, during my first club soccer season.

At this point in what would become a decade-long soccer career, I was unaware of the darker side of youth sports. Club soccer has become more about the business of developing elite athletes and less about promoting healthy team dynamics or even simply expressing a love of the game.

Players once a part of a team now seem more like individual athletes who just happen to wear the same jersey. Each elite player has a plan to get noticed by college recruiters and scouts. The better the team, the higher the club fees due to the number of tournaments.

And increasingly youth sports are a an international affair, with 15-year-olds traveling to, say, Puerto Rico and Spain for tournaments and games.

The pro players of tomorrow are cogs in a business machine that only recently was a recreational activity purposed with instilling discipline, responsibility and a strong work ethic. The less affluent, which often includes minorities, are frequently excluded from the myriad benefits offered by club membership. I played on six different teams and of the people I played with, I can count on one hand those who were not white.

The high costs of participating are often hidden. Take Knoxville’s FC Alliance, for example, a club I played with for several years. On its website’s FAQ page, under the question, “How much does it cost?” no amount is listed. Instead, club fees, traveling costs, team fees and uniform expenses are simply listed, item by item, but without a dollar sign to be found.

Of course the majority of club players will never see a financial return on their investment. Most players never receive a college scholarship or even play competitive, organized soccer after graduating high school. Those who do are used as advertisements by the clubs to attract new members, and the process of developing players into Division I and II college athlete hopefuls begins anew.

Two of the primary links on FC Alliance’s main webpage are “College Commitments” and “College Preparation.” Five of the seven pictures on the homepage’s slider feature college-related topics, including a showcase of players who have recently accepted scholarships.

FC Alliance does offer a rec league, but only up to age 12. Once a child reaches that age, he can either pursue becoming an “elite athlete” or join a community league such as those organized by the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). These types of leagues are often the punch lines to many an insult in the club soccer community. Calling a player an “AYSO player” is the equivalent of saying, “He or she is terrible.” And it’s no surprise. The clubs hire more accomplished coaches and offer better facilities than do community leagues.

So the choice for young soccer-playing enthusiasts: Settle for second-tier “AYSO player” status or spend thousands of dollars and countless hours traveling the country in pursuit of a college scholarship he has little chance of getting.

Even high school and middle school sports teams are feeling the effects as many club officials urge players to not play for their schools.

Like many of society’s larger issues, the problem of club sports has been institutionalized. There really isn’t a way to get rid of club sports, and reform is problematic.

So what should be done?

Local governments could revitalize community leagues by funding the hiring of better coaches and building better facilities. Parents should petition for the creation AYSO-type leagues to give kids who do not want to travel the country a viable alternative.

If reform isn’t attempted, kids will get to pass, shoot and score, but only if their families can afford it. 

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