To succeed in the “beautiful game” in much of the world, you just need to prove yourself on the field. Not so in the United States, where you pay to play.
The author driving the ball during a soccer game. (Photo courtesy of Gabe Stryker)
This article, by high school student Gabe Stryker, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Gabe is a student at The Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.
Playing soccer in the United States takes more than talent and hard work. It also takes money.
Consider Fletcher Jones, who plays soccer in the top American youth soccer division, MLS Next.
The team Jones plays for, Sporting Athletic Club, has showcases and matches all around the country. Recently they played in front of college and professional scouts in the U.S. state of Arizona, about 2,000 miles from Jones’ home in the state of Delaware.
“The farthest any of my teammates live from our practice fields is 2.5 hours away, and we train four days per week,” Jones said.
The dedication, time and financial backing that players require dissuade many skilled players from continuing to play the sport they love.
The pay-to-play model
Sam Monks is a British soccer coach in California who used to coach at The Tatnall School in Delaware, the private college preparatory school that Jones and I both attend. Monks now coaches in California but said there is a big difference between playing football in England and soccer in the United States, and the difference isn’t in the rules of the game.
“Soccer players in England have a more equitable path to play at the next level than Americans because it is not a pay-to-play model,” Monks said.
The rich cultural history of football in Europe helps in developing and producing talent there. But the most significant difference between opportunities to play at a high level in Europe versus the United States is the price associated with playing the “beautiful game.”
The cost to pay club, travel and hotel fees in the United States is so high that many players cannot fully develop their talents to the extent that they can play professionally or earn a scholarship to play in college.
For example, throughout my career as a travel soccer player, my parents paid about $4,000 per year in club fees, not including the $600 in uniforms and travel costs.
The ability to score is not enough.
In a 2020 study by Alex Golini, a graduate student at Liberty University in the U.S. state of Virginia, about 79% of youth soccer players at the club level in America come from households that make over $100,000 per year.
If the cost of playing soccer was more attainable for less financially-privileged families, more athletes might see the sport as a way to go to college on scholarship.
Alex Nestor played soccer at university and now coaches the varsity soccer team at Tatnall that Jones and I play on. He said one of the best players in the state of Delaware doesn’t compete at the club level. “He hasn’t played club at all because he has to go to work after school,” Nestor said. “I don’t know if he will get the same looks. He probably won’t. He’s not going to tournaments and it’s hard to get recruited if you don’t have a big-name club to throw out there.”
Many kids dream of making it out of tough financial situations through sports, but soccer is not a commonly-used path due to its lack of financial accessibility at the high divisions.
“The pay-to-play system started because a lot of the coaches are international,” Nestor said. “The club needed financial backing to convince these coaches to move here from England or France or other European countries.”
The cost of coaching
The money required to bring elite coaches to join U.S. clubs directly requires the sport to be monetized on the club level. “In England, the coaches are not paid at all besides for top-tier teams,” Monks said.
Coaches volunteer their time to “gain experience” and advance in the system, perfecting their coaching skills. This keeps sign-on fees for players low. With fees starting at a few thousand dollars annually for travel soccer teams in the United States, the scholarships do not start until the highest level of youth soccer.
Unless a player is among the best in the country and requires a clear, substantial amount of financial aid, families are charged thousands of dollars to cover the costs of tournaments, coaches, referees and field space, and many more additional costs for uniforms and travel. Recreational play is an option, but few college recruits attend these matches because they tend to be of a lesser level of play.
The diversity within club soccer in the United States reflects the lack of representation of various socioeconomic groups. Jones said he sees that on his club team. “The majority is white kids who are middle or upper-middle class and a couple go to private schools,” Jones said.
The recruitment opportunities directly correlate with the level of play, which generally increases in price as the talent increases, excluding scholarships for the most elite players.
Jones’ club team is partnering with an organization called First Point USA, which connects the players to universities they might attend.
Nestor said that no one talks about soccer in the United States as a way to rise from poverty, as is the case elsewhere in the world.
“The very best players come from poverty because they see soccer as a way to get their families out of bad situations,” Nestor said.
Three questions to consider:
- How is soccer in the United States different from football in other countries?
- How could U.S. soccer make the sport more equitable?
- If you ran a soccer club in your town, what changes might you institute to get the best players on the team?
Gabe Stryker is a student at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. He plays soccer and referees the game. He is from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
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