Alphabet Soup in US Soccer

How do you get from wherever you are in the youth soccer ecosystem to the Olympics, a National team, or a professional team? How do you make the most of your experience and come away happy that you participated? As simple as this question should be to answer, it is anything but simple. The array of options and thousands of spin offs that exist today are confusing even to those in the business of youth soccer full time. 

In this episode, I am going to confuse you temporarily while I lay out the scope of the Alphabet Soup problem, then Im going to try to simplify some things so you can sleep tonight. I apologize in advance for the spaghetti network of nonsense I'm going to throw at you, but if you can tough it out, my hope is that you'll have a better picture of the US soccer landscape and maybe make some more informed decisions about the future for your kids as they(and you) explore this awesome sport. 

Let's Back Up and Take it From the Top

At the top of the soccer pyramid is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Under the Umbrella of FIFA, 3.6 Billion fans from 200 countries participate in one of six "Confederations." It was founded in 1904; headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland; and is governed by an elected president, a senior vice president, a secretary general, and 7 vice presidents. They are elected by the FIFA Congress which consists of a member from each of the associations that are part of the organization. The total number of participants is 25. They make the top strategic decisions like which nation will host the World Cup - which is held every four years. The Congress also has committees like the finance committee, fair play committee, ethics, rules, and referees. The six confederations include:

  • Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL) - the South American confederation with 10 members and founded in 1916 in Argentina.  
  • The Union Des Association Europeenes de Football (UEFA) - mostly the European region with 55 members and founded in 1954 in Switzerland
  • The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) with 47 members and founded in 1954 in Manilla
  • The African Confederation (CAF) with 56 members, founded in 1957 in Sudan
  • Oceania Football Confederation  (OFC) - the Pacific Island confederation with 1966 after Australia and New Zealand were rejected by the AFC. Australia left to join the AFC in 2006.
  • And the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) with 41 members including the US, Canada, Mexico, and others, founded in 1961 in Mexico City

Inside the United States

Since this is a US-based podcast and I am part of a leadership team that runs an affiliate member of US Youth Soccer, I'm going to deep dive into the US system. Just know that the US is one of 41 members of CONCACAF - though it could be argued we're one of the biggest players in this confederation.  The US became an original member of CONCACAF on September 18, 1961. 

A bit of background you should know about is 1. the US didn't always follow FIFA 100%. That changed in 2010 and we now follow FIFA. 2. Canada, Mexico, and the United States are hosting the World Cup 2026. The last time we hosted a World Cup, the MLS was born, so many in the US are expecting positive disruption in the US Soccer Landscape in the next 5-6 years. 

United States Soccer Federation (USSF)

At the top of the United States soccer pyramid is a 501(c)3 nonprofit governing body; headquartered in Chicago, Illinois; referred to as the United States Soccer Federation or USSF. It was founded on April 5th, 1913, and acquired provisional FIFA affiliation on August 2nd, 1913. The US became a full member on June 27, 1914. USSF also has a relationship with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. Under US Youth Soccer, it is home to the Olympic Development Program (ODP). 

The sanctioned organization that sits up under the USSF umbrella is pretty complex. If you have a few weeks, you might get through mapping out the relationships between the various leagues and clubs, but at the end of the mapping exercise, you still won't have a clear picture of the path from your club to the professional leagues. 

What's the Path to NCAA or Professional?

If you're a parent or even a coach looking at the US soccer landscape and you want to know how a kid gets from their Youth Team onto a professional team or how they even get exposure to college recruiters, you're in trouble. Most parents and players have no idea the complexity, the quality, or the route to take without a lot of homework. Many parents will simply come out of pocket for the most expensive and fanciest looking/sounding operation. They'll talk with equally uninformed friends. They'll Google around some. In the end, they'll end up paying thousands and thousands of dollars more than their situation or their child calls for. They won't make much, if any progress, and they honestly won't figure this stuff out until their kid is getting ready to go off to college. 

Look at the diagram I posted for the green arrows. These indicate some of the many hundreds of pathways that kids can and do move around from the Youth system in and out of the varsity system, form the youth system into the professional system, and from the youth system into white space because they got frustrated and dropped out. What I designed is an over simplification of reality. If we were to make this more accurate, we'd have to add all 55 state member organizations, all of their leagues and sub-leagues, all of the tournaments and showcase events, and find some way to represent politics and factor in pure luck. 

If we were to look at what US Soccer tells us, it looks pretty clear. See diagrams below. They tell us that teams feed into clubs. Clubs feed into leagues around the state. The State Associations feed into ODP or the regional conferences. And Regional conferences feed into National Leagues - which are presumably the launch pads for further careers at the collegiate and/or professional levels. For perspective, let's not forget the fact that only 1.4% of young soccer players in American complete this journey. 

The graphics I posted showing the US Youth Soccer leagues pathway are some of the best I could find. They show in a very simple way that teams should theoretically be able to rise up through State Association leagues, through the National Conference system, into a National League, then on to the world stage. We've seen this happen with players like Rose Lavelle. She walked (ran) this path, made it into the Women's World Cup and blew away the world with her talent and personality. There are a handful of other examples that prove that this system has worked. 

Yet I find myself asking questions. 

Some Strains on Our System

I don't question that the pathway that US Soccer has laid out is in place. Whether a player's alphabet soup experience in youth soccer is through US Youth Soccer, DA, Club Soccer, or follows the NFHS path through NCAA, it can be done. It has been done. We have examples. Here's my concerns:

1. We don't have clarity. Communication is often the last thing to really get going. The amount of work I had to do to get the maps I made for this episode is too much for the average soccer parent. The range of available pathways in the game of soccer needs to be laid out much more clearly. And let's not assume the only desired pathway is to the pros or to a college bench. Kids come to this game for all kinds of reasons. Families need to understand the most cost effective means to accomplish their goals. If that's to have some fun with friends during the week, play some games on weekends, and socialize in-between, then let not let parents fall into the trap of paying unreasonable amounts of money for stuff they don't need or want. If kids truly can't enough of soccer and want to go pro at some point, make it clear what they need to do and how much it will cost in terms of time and treasure to get there. I suspect if parents understood they will likely pay more money positioning their kids for scholarship than they would get back even if they won the scholarship, would they make the same choice? Maybe. Maybe not. But give parents this information so they can decide. 

2. Ego is expensive. Clarity of options and how different pathways lead to different objectives goes a long way, but good governance is needed to keep egos in check all around. Here are some ways that egos are driving up costs: 

  • Coaches egos hold onto and play some players and eject developing players for the sake of winning more games and making the coach look good (or hold onto their job). 
  • Parents egos pull unreasonable amounts of money out of their wallets in order to keep up with the Jones' and provide labeling. 
  • Clubs undermine other clubs and hold onto players longer than they should in order to boost their overall win ratio and boast about their program. They charge more because they can. The parent supported assumption is that the club that costs the most must be the best, so fees rise. 
  • Coaches place players in less challenging environments in order to get more wins (e.g. tournaments)
  • Clubs cut their recreation programs loose in order to avoid the "just rec" label and improve prestige. 
  • Parents egos get in the way on the pitch during game times. Yelling at referees, coaching without a license or the team strategy, and distracting players is driving good referees, coaches, and players out of the game. The ones left will be the ones who don't mind dealing in conflict, in driving for the win (at the expense of development), and ignoring the noise - or worse, capitulating to it and making coaching by committee or squeaky wheel the new normal. Kids won't get anywhere under those conditions. 

3. We have too few examples of success. Success comes in many forms. Giving back to the community (think kids who are willing to follow parents examples and volunteer to clean up a community park), achieving good grades in school, bringing teamwork to youth jobs, to winning a World Cup. Where are the corporate executives who return to their home towns and leave testimonials (and charitable donations) about how their experience as a youth athlete has contributed to their success? The national dialog focuses attention on a small handful of superstars that we love to watch on TV for entertainment value. We are usually exposed to them when they make it to the World Cup. We need more examples of success from other important things that youth sports provide. 

4. Not working as advertised. I've seen numbers ranging from 2.2 million to 4.5 million youth soccer players playing in the United States. We've all seen the handful of soccer specific success stories, but as a percentage of the whole who participate in youth sports, these are extremely rare. With the exception of the Women's National team, which has performed spectacularly through several World Cups, our professional teams are not making the cut on the world stage. Is this a function of a broken system, of poor coaching, of poor American diets, or of the fact that too many really good players are not finding their way through the system? I honestly don't know the correct answer to this question, but after trying to draw out the relationships between clubs, leagues, events, etc. I imagine an army of parents and kids wandering, lost in the forrest of our soccer ecosystem, getting robbed of their money, making poor choices, and ending up leaving. Lost talent is hard to quantify, but anecdotally, my own experience says we're losing a lot of it. 

5. Dilution is killing us. Every frustrated coach or citizen with a few hundred dollars can go start their own unsanctioned organization. They call it a training academy. They either have no teams playing in the USSF system or they tuck up under an existing Club, depriving that club of much needed revenue and making it impossible to establish or enforce culture. As a Club President and a coach, I've seen the bench get lighter and lighter every season since 2010. Some of this is because I'm now coaching older high-school aged kids who are just busy. But some of it is because kids can't afford to come out. Some of it is because fraud, scandal, and nonsense has dragged youth sports through the mud and parents are like: not for me, thanks. Some of it, and this is frustrating to me, is because hundreds of little mom and pop, for-profit operations have popped up like weeds in an untended garden. These training "academies" are often uninsured, have no chance of getting sanctioned by the state, are motivated by profit, and are confusing parents into thinking they provide a path to anything. 

What Can We Do?

I don't think for a moment that we're going to be able to fix the problems, bring clarity, or change the culture of youth soccer overnight. We're going to be working and playing in the current system for the foreseeable future. At the individual family level, the best we can do is adjust our sails. Being clear about what we want to get out of the youth sports experience in our own minds can make us strong in the face of uncertainty. As the Cheshire Cat cleverly points out in Alice in Wonderland, if you don't know where you're going, most any path will take you there. 

We have a little more responsibility at the coaching level. Coaches can and should become masters of the own universe. Becoming educated on the range of possibilities, practicing humility, partnering with others who might better serve individual players, and focusing on development, removing ourselves from the picture when it makes sense, and becoming advocates for the success of our players vs worrying about our own standings at the expense of development. 

At the club and/or league levels, I believe we can make the biggest difference. Education, policy, parent engagement, managing culture, financial modeling, and exposing the market to options, costs of options, how to navigate through the experience to the outcomes families want, and valuing alternative uses for youth sport (it's not all about being the best soccer player in the world), can all help at a local level. 

I'm preparing a follow on episode to this where I will share with you the model I've been working on as a way to get more clear about what you want from youth sports. I created this model as a way to efficiently craft and cost youth soccer experiences for soccer teams in my own market. I think you'll find it stimulating at a minimum. Perhaps it can save you some money and connect parent, coaches, and clubs more effectively, given what we have to work with. 


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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.