This is a continued look into issues that affect the United States due to a lack of Promotion Relegation. My last post looked into the readiness of lower divisions for Promotion and touched on how to insure quality of clubs that are promoted.
“It makes sense to invest in youth development because with an efficient youth academy the clubs save money on transfers and inflated salaries. A greater top down investment from the club to the youth academy is to be encouraged, since the costs of investment will offer a return, not only financially, but also in terms of players’ loyalty, identification with the club and its supporters’ base.”[i]
A country full of strong clubs striving to reach the peak level of play requires a strong youth structure to complement it. In the United States we spend more than $5 billion dollars on youth soccer. The exact number of people who play soccer in this country is hard to pin down but there are over 3 million boys and girls registered to US Youth Soccer.[ii] AYSO has over 600,000 registered participants.[iii] There are dozens if not hundreds of other smaller regional recreational programs of varying size spread across the country. Over 790,000 kids played high school soccer.[iv] In all some 24 million people play the game in the United States.[v]
Despite this we do not produce high level stars, let alone world class players like Ronaldo or Messi. Why? It is my contention that the lack of a truly competitive environment stifles the growth of the American player. Our National coach Jurgen Klinsmann said as much when he bemoaned the return of top US players to MLS. Other commentators have noted that our soccer players do not realize the effort needed to succeed at the highest level.
Repeatedly, athletes comment on the intensity of practice in Europe, where every player is vying for a spot and every team is determined to climb the ladder or keep from falling further down. We do not have those pressures here in the United States. Here we have players just happy to be hanging out with their buddies and having a barbecue. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, it will not make us a great soccer nation.
If the USSF would actually do what it’s supposed to and call for a nationwide system of promotion and relegation, with a deadline of today, tomorrow or five years from now, the dynamic would instantly change. Teams would be forced to do more than tread water, hoping to pick up a Designated Player or two and make a run at the playoffs. They would be forced to search for every advantage and it would make them far better and more competitive in the long run.
Local Clubs Inspire
When a player sees the reality of playing top level soccer for the local team, it changes the way they look at the game. It also changes the fans perspective when a local kid becomes a star. How often do we hear fans in England sing?
Those fans are celebrating that it’s a kid who came up through the program, a neighbor’s boy, a homegrown. It is that connection to the community that inspires true passion in both the players and their supporters.
Now, I’m not going to argue that the United States should already have that level of local connection, when our soccer structure has been failing this country for a hundred years, but the time is ripe for it to exist and to grow. Today there are 20 teams in MLS, with 2 more on the way. NASL has grown to 11, again with 2 more teams in the works. The USL has 24 teams and has made noise of expanding to 40. That means there are least 55 teams playing something which could be called top flight soccer. The youth growing up in those communities actually can see someone, only a few years older than themselves plying their trade on the turf.
“Ever since I have been around the game I have wanted to be a professional in that atmosphere and in his shoes. It’s never been a question as to whether I wanted to do something else or be something else. This has been my passion since I can remember.” Duncan McCormick, S2 (referring to his dad)
It is beginning to happen. But the problem is in a nation of 300 million we have a limited number of outlets and those outlets are being further artificially limited by the necessity of teams to pay an entrance fee to reach the highest level. Absent that artificial limitation, any number of teams from any city in the country could reach the highest level.
Bournemouth in England is a coastal resort town of 183,000 people and home to AFC Bournemouth. During the 2008-09 season, Bournemouth was almost relegated from the Football League(League Two), ending the season fourth from bottom. With 10 matches to go in the 2014-15 season they are in first place in the Championship poised to reach the Premier League.
For the youth in that town there is direct proof that working hard can allow your team to achieve the ultimate goal. Here in the United States, kids growing up in towns and cities without MLS clubs can aspire to play in a far flung city, but their local club will never achieve promotion to a higher level. The dynamic changes when it is your team doing great things and it those local roots which make great fans.
“When my dad took me to spring training, seeing the work ethic of the players I realized I’ve got to work my tail off.” Drew Finley, High school pitcher.
You hear this in baseball all the time. Sons of coaches and former players, or just a kid lucky enough to spend time around the ballpark know that a player has to actually put in work to be at the top of their game.
A kid who only sees soccer players on TV, where they are usually either playing in the game or goofing off for the camera, has no understanding of that work. A quick drive to watch your local team practice and the image changes. When your cousin, or your friend’s brother trains with the team, you learn firsthand how hard a player needs to work. This is a big element of what is missing in the game here.
In Europe 92% of all academies are an integral part of the club[vi]. The youth players practice on fields near the professional team. Older academy players often practice with the first team. This integration allows the youth players to see their heroes at a close level, get a feel for how hard they must continue to train, and gives them opportunities to stretch themselves as a player.
Until there is the opportunity for every community to have a club that can rise or fall on its own merits there won’t be those ties that inspire kids to actually put in the work necessary.
Today most youth clubs in the United States are little more than a logo and a group of teams. The best of them have a common core of how they want their teams to play, have coaches who actively work to develop training programs to reach those goals and all of whom hope to make the kids who play for them into the best players they can be.
The problem is those clubs aren’t tied to anything. There is no first team that you are striving for. There is no long term goal, besides the ephemeral college scholarship or possibility you might be seen by an ODP scout. There is an inherent inefficiency because there is not enough pressure to make MLS sides seek out players who will change their team.
Why shouldn’t these youth organizations be allowed to create a first team and try to grow it into something special? Local professional clubs would change that dynamic. Professional Clubs would seek out the players plying their games on the local fields and bring them into the fold. Throughout Europe, scouts show up at every level of grassroots games and watch, hoping to spy that special talent. Here, a kid playing in the inner city, in the Mexican leagues of Southern California, on the cow pasture fields of some regional AYSO team, have little to no chance of being seen.
When the youth teams become tied to a club and the club is receiving benefit from them, the club absorbs the cost of training that player. It is a cost of business, money that will be recouped when the player improves the team and/or is sold on to another team.
Benefits to the Youth Market
“The Ajax youth academy is like the lifeblood of the club. … We’re not capable of spending large amounts of money for players. Which means you have to develop them yourself.” Danny Blind, AFC Ajax
Beau Dure, soccer writer and an active participant on twitter opined that MLS would stop spending on money if they feared relegation.[vii] I disagree.
When clubs are responsible for their own salvation in a competitive market it is imperative they develop talent that will keep them in the top division. If there is no pressure from lower teams trying to take your spot, it doesn’t really matter if you miss out on youth talent. You can always draft another college kid, or pick up a journeyman from the discards of a fellow member club. But when you need to be good enough and money is an issue youth development becomes a necessity.
The United States touts that it spent 30 million dollars on its academies and other player development last year.[viii] This is an investment of just over a $1.5 million per team. It’s a good start, but not good enough. The truth is in the rest of the world almost every professional team has some form of youth program. Those programs provide professional training in the hope the player will either strengthen the team or can be sold to another team for profit. We need to reach the point where every club in the nation has its youth program.
66% of clubs in Europe have an academy program that takes up more than 4% of their total budget. For 15% its more than 10% of their budget.[ix] Over 70% of the clubs spend more than 3 million € a year on their youth budget.[x]
A Club like Ajax spends around €6 million on its academy training 220 players, starting at the age of 5, to play their style of soccer. At the age of 16 to 17 a promising player can be assured they will see first team playing time if they are good enough.[xi] Ajax pays everything involved in training its academy players, from equipment and uniforms, to travel expenses (including bussing them from school) and the 25 academy coaches.[xii]
Ajax has 50 scouts in the Netherlands, a country the size of Maryland, searching for kids to bring to its academy. Any player can apply to the club and can be seen at the talentdagen (tryout). They have another 5 scouts that travel the world to find players.
In comparison the United States National Team only has eighty or so scouts, scouring the entire country.[xiii] MLS teams had no scouts a few years ago and most now have a head scout who works with a stable of scouting agencies.[xiv] This is crazy. There is no effort to find the brilliant gem, toiling on a back lot. It’s a fill in the numbers approach that is extremely inefficient.
Benefits to the Clubs
Value from developing players. Over 60% of the clubs in Europe view their youth academies as source of income.[xv]
Ajax has sold 18 players in the last 3 years earning over €85 million.[xvi] During that same time period they have spent approximately €18 million on their youth academy. This is an amazing rate of return. During that same period the Seattle Sounders sold 2 players for €4.91 million[xvii] Those are the only 2 players they’ve sold during the last seven years. FC Dallas, often touted as having the best youth academy[xviii] in MLS sold one player during the last three years, Brek Shea, and he is now playing for Orlando City SC.[xix]
Granted MLS academies are in their infancy, but the rigor of training to develop players desired by the richer clubs of the world is not there. This should be the goal of each one of our academies. To develop players who other teams salivate over, clamor for.
This takes a massive change in the way we scout for players and how those players are trained. It’s not enough to hold open tryouts and hope some kid from the barrios of Los Angeles, or the dusty streets of Bakersfield find their way to LA Galaxy or the soon to be shuttered Chivas. The teams should be sending dozens of knowledgeable scouts out to find these players and giving them an opportunity to become great.
Opening the country pyramids will force teams to find these players and the teams can reap the benefits. If the fetters are taken off completely, one day the US may have clubs that can compete with the best in the world full of homegrown players being sung to by the local fans. Even if we never become the new Premier League or Bundesliga, true youth development will improve our leagues across the board.
If we continue down the path we are on we have no hope of ever being more than a retirement league. If we have to choose between being a retirement league and being a selling league, I will choose selling every time. Watching young players develop and then move on to greater things elsewhere is far preferable than watching old and tired players go through the motions to pick up one last paycheck.
Next time I will delve into the problem with pay to play and how the failure of USSF in implementing and enforcing player compensation acerbates that problem.
[i] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 152
[iii] “History of AYSO”. American Youth Soccer Organization
[vi] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 106
[viii] Los Angeles Times, “MLS may lose momentum if players strike before 2015 season starts,” January 31, 2015
[ix] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 100
[x] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 99
[xi] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 22
[xii] Parents do pay a €17 insurance fee
[xv] ECA Report on Youth Academy in Europe, p. 17
[xvii] Transfermarkt.com, includes €1.14 million loan fee of Fredy Montero
[xix] Transfermarkt.com, Brek Shea to Stoke for €3 million.