The U.S. men’s soccer team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is likely be seen a referendum of the sport in this county. “It’s going to be a blamefest for the next couple of months, if not years, I’m afraid,” says Tom Cove president and CEO of Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
The reality is the challenges exposed when the U.S. lost to Trinidad & Tobago last week are complicated. National team coach Bruce Arena has already resigned, and more leadership changes will almost surely occur. While opinions may vary on what should come next, almost everyone involved in soccer can agree there is no quick fix.
Connect Sports polled experts in youth sports like Cove, as well as elite tournament professionals and a World Cup star, for suggestions on how the U.S. soccer program can improve to ensure the national team avoids a failure of this magnitude again.
Keep Kids Playing
Soccer and baseball remain tied for most popular sports among children ages 6 through 9, Cove says. That’s the good news. It’s the age groups that follow that raise concern. SFIA research shows that nearly 4.8 million children ages 6 through 12 participate in the sport. But that number drops to 2.5 million among 13-17 year olds. “We’re losing way too many kids from the pool of players,” says Cove. “There’s something wrong if you’ve got kids leaving before they are 10 years old.”
Cove adds baseball officials learned valuable lessons—think informal, faster games—after years of decline and is now enjoying a resurgence among older kids. “Baseball finally got the word it needed to get more people on the field,” he says. “Soccer needs to make a move in that regard.”
U.S. Women’s National Team star Tobin Heath, who’s excelled on the World Cup and Olympic stages, says there’s too much emphasis on winning. Young kids don’t need the rigid structure that’s commonplace across the country, she points out. “We need to develop a culture where kids want to go out and play on their own and just have fun, and don’t need a coach to tell them what to do,” says Heath, now a member of NWSL’s Portland Thorns FC. Cove adds SFIA stats show soccer lags behind basketball in terms of informal pick-up games played among American youth.
Rethink Travel Soccer
Sports tourism is good for the U.S. economy (to the tune of $10 billion) and often creates bonding experiences for children and parents. But should families spend tens of thousands of dollars and dedicate dozens of weeks throughout the year to attend tournaments? “It’s gotten a little out of hand,” says Heath. Cove says athletes would benefit from playing sports seasonally rather than year-round. He encourages kids to “play another sport, do something else—then come back renewed.”
Millions of young soccer players compete in high-level events produced by skilled organizers. But only a small fraction of those players are going to be great—at least right away. Patrick Dicks, manager of sports business development at Disney Sports Attractions, says the country needs to concentrate on the grass-roots level to help kids grow their skills. “Let’s start narrowing down the focus so we have a truly recognized system for young players to become national team players,” he says. “That starts in your local zip code.”
Cove adds the boom in large sports complexes, designed to attract large tournaments, can also benefit players who are not stars. The facilities, particularly those located near metropolitan areas, would be well served to “thread the needle” by hosting high-level events and local recreational leagues. “There’s a real win-win there,” he says.
Whether considering youth teams or elite-level individuals, the price is high—too high, many say—to become a great player. (Many parents pay more than $15,000 per year in tournament costs, as an example.) Most studies show soccer in the U.S. skews toward middle-class to high-income households, discouraging would-be prospects from more blue-collar families. Elite Tournaments President Mike Libber goes as far as to say American soccer academies should be free to the best of the best, so as to reverse the trend. “The academy system currently in place is backward,” Libber says. “It is a revenue generator for U.S. Soccer and does not give back.”