There are about 100,000 youth soccer players in Washington—considered one of the country’s richest talent pools by the US Soccer Federation. Many of the largest immigrant communities here come from soccer-loving nations such as El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, England, Nigeria, Germany, and Ghana.
The American approach to cultivating talent bears little resemblance to successful overseas models. In Europe, elite youth soccer is run though the professional clubs, which administer networks of amateur teams designed to produce their next generation of stars. At often-elaborate facilities, young players get state-of-the-art coaching, training, and nutrition. Prospects who pan out have a direct route to the pros.
Without this top-down framework, soccer in the United States evolved into a jumble of locally organized clubs. These clubs—as opposed to high schools—are the center of gravity for elite players. College coaches rarely scout high-school games. And while many club players earn college scholarships, the system lacks a clear path to the national team or professional clubs.
The 63 clubs in the National Capital Soccer League draw from as far away as Fauquier County in Virginia and Damascus in Maryland. Recreational leagues in the area offer programs for kids as young as five and competitive travel teams for players up to 18. “At every level of competition, there is pressure to win,” says Pat Delaney of the metropolitan area’s state referee committee.
In its study of youth soccer, the US Soccer Federation identified an overemphasis on winning as a key shortcoming. Instead of results, players—especially at the younger ages—should focus on dribbling, passing, and shooting skills before they begin playing more competitively in their teens. “People confuse being on a winning team with the development of the player,” says Mark Heilbrun, director of training at the Springfield/South County Youth Club and a former member of the US youth national team. “The two might be congruent, but they might not.” For players under age 12, the federation recommends less structure. It encourages kids to spend more time kicking around a ball on a playground, an activity that helps them fall in love with the sport and prevents burnout.
At the same time, the federation concluded, elite players participate in too many games and don’t train enough. Between high-school, club, and tournament teams, an elite player could have more than 100 matches a year. The US Soccer Federation believes 32 is more like it. Those extra games should be replaced with high-quality training. The top foreign youth programs the federation studied had practice-to-game ratios of three to one or higher. In the United States, it was more like one to three.
US Soccer officials also concluded it was time to dismantle the so-called pay-to-play model, which helps fuel the focus on winning and the too-frequent games. Successful overseas programs are often free, funding themselves by taking a cut of the professional contracts their star players go on to sign. In the United States, parents can pay more than $5,000 a year for their children to take part.
Although youth teams were once run by parents, many now outsource coaching to professional organizations such as HP Elite and Beyond in Fairfax and Soccer the Brazilian Way in Montgomery County. Top-tier private coaches can earn more than $100,000 a year by working for clubs, holding camps, and offering private lessons.
The arrangement has improved the quality of coaching but has also turned parents into demanding customers. For the thousands of dollars they pay each year, parents want wins and college scholarships, coaches say. The goals are linked. “If you have a winning team, you will have more college coaches at your games, and you will get more Division I scholarships,” says Brandon Feather, a coach at Braddock Road Youth Club.
Competition for talent is fierce. “It’s no different than Georgetown and the University of Maryland looking for that top basketball player—in fact it’s sometimes worse,” says coach Pete Mehlert, who has more than 25 years of youth-soccer experience in Washington.
And because elite players can hop from one club to another in search of college exposure, coaches feel pressure to win just to keep the talent they have. “We have to compete with these 50 or 60 other clubs for these players,” says Mike Yeatts, executive director of Prince William Courage Soccer Club. “If we have a couple stumbles, there is a concern that maybe we will lose a player to a team that is having a good season.”