Welcome to the Alphabet Soup!
Why is the US Soccer Landscape so complicated?
Commonly known as the alphabet soup, because of the acronyms used to abbreviate the myriad of different organizations, the US youth soccer landscape is a complex beast.
Its complex political arrangements impair, rather than encourage the promotion of long-term player development (LTPD) best practice.
Unless it can be fixed, I fear the US men’s team will remain irrelevant and worse, the all-conquering women’s team, will soon be overtaken by countries who are mirroring the proven youth development structures of their boy’s side.
There is a famous quote from Bill Shankly* – Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better.
For me this quote sums up the US soccer landscape.
Having lived and worked in US soccer for 6 years* now, I feel the beliefs and values that make America such an amazing place, transfer into sporting and business cultures and actually damage its overall soccer development.
*I know it’s only a short time, but it’s been long enough to allow me to fully understand the landscape and short enough not to forget how things are done elsewhere.
Values like Equality, Openness, democracy, individualism and freedom are just some of the many reasons why I bought my family here to live in the US. We love and cherish these core beliefs and fight wars to protect them.
However, when it comes to creating a soccer structure that will foster LTPD, freedom, democracy and openness, are doing us more harm than good.
In fact, I believe these values, allied with the closed systems that are pervasive across US sport, create a diluted, over politicized, labyrinth that promotes mediocrity.
One fundamental problem is the structure of youth soccer underneath US Soccer. The federation apportions the responsibility of overseeing youth football to a myriad of organizations, each with their own philosophies, methods and priorities.
This structural abundance, does nothing more than release ever increasing levels of complexity, cascading upon the poor parents who are left to navigate this leviathan.
The biggest players, at the competitive end of the youth soccer market, are US Youth Soccer and US Club Soccer, both sanction national and grassroots leagues throughout the US that your child has probably played in.
They vie for market share, with varying levels of success across the country creating a fractured system, with one or other organization being dominant in different geographical markets.
As a result, there are no two football markets in the US with the same organizational and league hierarchy.
US Soccer’s introduction of the boy’s DA in 2007 reduced the effects of this fractured system at the highest level on the boy’s side. The DA is now pretty much universally recognized, in virtually every market, as the highest level.
The DA expanded in 2013 to introduce the U13 & U14 age groups and in 2016 when the DA introduced U12 age groups I thought the time had come when US Soccer had finally seen the light. Expansion to take control of youth football under one organization was finally here.
Alas, in 2018, the same year as the USSF Presidential election (Read into that what you will), US Soccer announced it was dropping its U12 program. Rumors followed that the U13 age group would follow soon afterwards and tiering would create an MLS only DA. Today that still seems to be the direction the boy’s DA is heading.
Until 2017 the girl’s side was similar, with ECNL holding the mantle as the highest level. US Soccer’s introduction of the girls Development Academy shattered this and now GDA and ECNL are in a monumental battle for dominance.
The DA it seems, is not the white knight that can unify the game. Instead, particularly on the girl’s side it is adding yet another layer of complexity.
How can we fix this problem? Who has the power to get the job done?
The landscape at the 2nd tier of youth football is more complex still. It shifts constantly as organizations and leagues, merge, diverge and constantly introduce new platforms or competitions, designed to increase market share.
Running a club in this environment is very tough. If you want to create strong teams by attracting and retaining good players, then you must strive to compete in the most high-profile leagues.
The fractured system means there is no nationwide merit-based system available. A strong team’s progress is limited by the ceiling of the league it plays in. Each league platform (DA, ECNL, NPL, National League) is closed to outside competition with significant barriers, making admission and therefore progression very difficult.
The idea is that each successively higher league platform demands higher club standards, better coaching, facilities, organization, etc.
If managed properly this could be good for the player development. However, with no independent US organization available to audit clubs, there’s no efficient way to ensure clubs adhere to the standards wished down from their governing organization.
In addition, acceptance into higher league platforms is often very political, with strategies from above driving or limiting expansion. Certain influential clubs often yield veto powers and are able to stop local competitors from joining.
What the US youth soccer landscape needs is a dictator.
Someone immune to political interference, with only one objective and vision. Someone who cares little about democracy, openness and freedom and is focused solely on the task in hand.
To create a nationwide youth soccer structure, that will create more participation, reduce costs, and promote the movement of high potential players into the best development programs.
A youth tsar who will introduce a totalitarian regime, taking control from top to bottom with root and branch structural changes that unify and simplify the game in each state and region.
A nationwide conformity, with identical, easy to understand hierarchical structures in each state, allowing a family to move from CT to CA and still understand the soccer landscape.
In principle this is so easy to do, but because US Soccer’s leadership structure and the democratic way its leaders are chosen, the whole process becomes extremely political and unlikely ever to be accomplished.
My wish is that US Soccer will eventually take control of the situation is a fantasy. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle. However, there is a ray of light.
Many of the wealthy owners of MLS and USL franchises want to have a deep impact in their local communities and have chosen football as a vehicle for this.
Their philanthropic attitude combined with the rapid growth of pro club franchises might just be the answer to our prayers.