Project American Soccer

Soccer’s commercial and physical success in the U.S. is harmed by the youth “pay-to-play” system in which expensive programs discourage players from starting or continuing to play, creating a culture of elitism.

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My first memory of playing soccer is in the park next to my house with my dad. He made me fall in love with the sport; since that day in 2015, I have become a soccer fanatic. From arguing with friends about Messi and Ronaldo (I used to be a Ronaldo fangirl) to asking my dad countless questions about strategies and positions, soccer culture was an integral part of my childhood. My family is Ukrainian, and soccer is immensely popular in Eastern European countries. My dad and his friends obsess over soccer, so I was surprised that it wasn’t that big of a deal in America. My classmates were more interested in the Super Bowl and the National Basketball Association than in Major League Soccer or European soccer. This apathy stems from youth soccer, where the deeply flawed “pay-to-play” system in the U.S. turns an incredible sport that encourages unity into an elitist one.

The U.S. has long tried to increase the sport’s popularity, with the National Broadcasting Company spending more than $2.7 billion in 2021 to receive the rights to show the Premier League (the top league of soccer in England). The soccer market is a lucrative business valued at billions, but it is relatively untapped in the U.S. consumer market. If soccer becomes more prevalent in American culture, being one of the first to benefit would be invaluable. Recently, the U.S. men’s soccer team was eliminated from the 2022 World Cup in the Round of 16, a significant improvement since failing to even qualify for the last World Cup. This has significantly expanded the conversation around American soccer since the start of tournaments in December last year. The phrase “it’s called soccer” spread over social media when the U.S. was set to play England, signifying a spark of interest in the sport. However, American viewership of soccer still lags behind, and the U.S. doesn’t consistently produce worldwide soccer stars. In countries like England and Brazil, where soccer is integrated into media and everyday life, national soccer teams and players are much more successful. Why can’t the U.S. replicate that?

Youth soccer in the U.S. is not as popular compared to countries in South America and Europe. The root of the issue lies in a system of pre-professional soccer called “pay-to-play.” Families pay an average of $1,472 to $20,000 per year just for one child to participate in a soccer club. Correlated with the rising expense in organized athletics, participation in sports among families earning less than $75,000 has dropped since 2011. While town leagues are often a cheaper alternative to club soccer, the difference in the quality of equipment, staff, and training makes them an inadequate substitute. Listening to stories of athletes rising from nothing is inspiring and incredibly influential to the next generation of soccer players. However, with the current structure of youth soccer in the U.S., that dream is much harder to achieve. Though it is true that extraordinary players are usually scouted and do not have to pay as much to play, this system discourages lower-income children from developing any interest in the sport.

The European model of youth soccer is much better than the American system. Many academies are free of charge, including training and travel for selected players. For example, in England, the provided facilities and coaching are of top quality, producing some of the best soccer players in the world, such as Bukayo Saka and Reece James. Additionally, Spanish academies are regarded as some of the best in European soccer, producing the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué. Even the great Lionel Messi impressed Barcelona, leading to the club paying for his medical treatment, which his parents could not have afforded otherwise. This decision led to two decades of amazing soccer and Barcelona’s Golden Age in the 2000s and 2010s. Not only does this benefit young, lower-income players, but it also allows clubs to profit when homegrown players join their league teams and are sold to other clubs. Expensive clubs and camps in the U.S. may seem enticing with their incredibly extensive resources; however, when the youth soccer industry becomes so inflated, the sport becomes inaccessible. If clubs focus on potential and talent, they could build a reputation for producing incredible players. By taking advantage of a system that has already proven to work in Europe, American youth soccer can become more accessible, and the U.S. can become integrated into soccer culture worldwide.

European and South American academies aren’t the only factors that produce their most skillful players—it’s the culture that stems from those countries. Right now, “pay-to-play” is preventing soccer from becoming the domestic sensation that it has the potential to become in the U.S. If another system is adopted, such as the European model, more successful players can arise. Football, basketball, and baseball aren’t going anywhere, but a sport that brings American athleticism to the international stage for recognition is important, and everyone should have the opportunity to play.