Over the last three months, I have started a deep dive into the youth soccer landscape in the US. My aim is to complete thorough research to understand all the intricacies making the US youth model so special and so different from anywhere else in the world. 

Unsurprisingly, we tend to do everything differently in the US; maybe that’s just a way to feel unique, or maybe it’s a societal current. In this sense, I have been trying to identify what makes this country so different in the way we “develop” youth soccer players. Here are some of my biggest learnings so far:

Starting at the structural level, we must understand that there are two main ways businesses and organizations operate in the world. There is the public sector and the private sector. For example, our school system has public schools and private schools; one is subsidized by the government through taxes, and the other operates privately based on fees and tuition paid by its members. If we take Europe for example, most sports are public. The local town has its soccer program, its tennis program, and its rugby program as well as the coaches from those senior teams that often get involved in the youth game to develop new talent for their first team. Every so often, a special player emerges and ends up in a professional academy, which is often private. Private youth clubs do not exist. This is not the case in the US. Focusing on soccer specifically, town programs have been buried by the private sector, and the two main drivers of that are: 


  • The first consideration is that higher-level structures are all privately owned: MLS, USL, and NWSL. As a result, many other leagues have started below to create various “levels” that require a fee to play, which, in turn, has forced the clubs and players to “pay to play.”


  • The second is the search for the best training environment. Private coaches have started charging for “better” training, and slowly, we have created a web of privately owned clubs that set their fee schedules and promote their worth by their wins and status. 


To put it in contrast, all leagues within the pyramid of French soccer run and operate through the French Football Federation, a public entity. The price of a license is set by the federation and players purchase their license at the federation to play in a club. For an amateur senior player, a license costs less than 100 euros a year. Outside of that, clubs do not have any fees applied to the players for participation – and that is for adults. Its even cheaper for kids!

The next major finding I want to discuss is this idea of “player development.” Note that I put “develop” in quotations at the beginning of this post; based on the structure I described above, we have a direct conflict between the current model and the true understanding of player development. If one’s goal is to develop young talent and help them achieve their highest possible level, the focus should be on the player every day, week, month, and year. The conflict comes when we create a pay-to-play model, which continues to put winning before everything (I know some youth coaches may disagree here). Fundamentally, regardless of how much we say we “are not driven by wins and losses,” we all have an implicit bias that will force our decision-making based on the environment we operate in. 

For example, say one coaches a team for a club competing in a youth league. The player pays the club, and the club pays the coach and the league fees. Therefore, the club runs on the numbers of members it has and how much money it brings in to keep the club afloat, pay its coaches, etc. To keep attracting players to join, the club must remain relevant in the market, and that stems from how its teams perform locally, regionally, and nationally. 

In turn, every weekend, the coach is indirectly biased by winning – both to keep their job and to keep the club relevant. So, at the end of the day, every decision made at training and on game day is going to prioritize players in certain positions based on said attributes or players playing more or less time based on the game. The fundamental question is: how is any of this best for “developing” a player from six years old through 18? Why are they always playing on the right side? How are they ever going to improve their weak foot? Why are they being specialized at 12 years old to be a forward? Because they are fast? I could keep going.

My challenge is this: how can we start thinking outside of the box, reinvent what competition looks like, and change how we structure the model within which we operate?