Wasted diamonds: The cost-prohibitive nature of U.S. youth soccer

Drew Hallowell

The USA has a problem with developing quality soccer players: it prices them out of playing.

'I was lucky to come from a difficult area...It teaches you not just about football but also life. There were lots of kids from different races and poor families. People had to struggle to get through the day. Music was important. Football was the easy part.'

-Zinedine Zidane on his upbringing in Marseille

Diego Maradona, he of magical feet and questionable moral character, once said that his mother -- Dalma Salvadora Franco -- used to pretend that she had a stomachache whenever she would serve them dinner. This was because there was not enough to go around and she was willing to disregard her own hunger for the satisfaction of her children. For the adult Maradona, football had become not only means to improve his own life but a way in which he could repay his mother for her sacrifices.

There is an ideal in the United States -- the American Dream, most would call it -- that paints a portrait of hope for those who would work hard enough. It's supposed to be possible to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and realize your dreams. Though this ideal might be dead in the current system, its ruins are still the foundations that most existing institutions are built upon.

Most. United States grassroots soccer is intended to help develop players from every walk of life. Somehow, it's also one of the few American institutions that's burned down that original house of dreams, and they've gone so far as to sweep away the debris completely, cackling maniacally while counting money, perched on top of the blueprints for a penthouse for upper-middle-class players only.

I like to personally compare the current state of the United States soccer to a new clothing line that is charging Armani prices for its inventory and wondering why business isn't booming. It's a clothing line with no established identity and endorsement from famous sources about its quality, which, as you can see, ends up being the clothes of old, close-to-retirement footballers.

That analogy aside, without building success and an end product, U.S. soccer has decided that those who are responsible for the popularity of soccer everywhere else -- poor players -- are not needed. Because regardless of how many soccer-specific stadiums you build, how much you market the sport and brag about the increasing attendance (millions of people watched the "Gangnam Style" video), no one is going to take you seriously when most players in your league have the technical ability of slightly concussed Stella's sea lions.* Success will almost always come down to the quality of the final product.

*They're extinct, by the way.

Let's do a simple exercise. Think of your favorite player. Now find them on Wikipedia and read their backgrounds. Maybe you're a Ronaldinho fan. His family used to live in a wooden house in Porto Alegre before his brother was signed by Gremio. Or maybe, you're a fan of goals, and you like Ronaldo, sufferer of many knee injuries, who grew up on one of the numerous poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and played his football on the streets.

Maybe you're an individual of refined taste. You like style, grace and the great Zidane, who, by the way grew up in a neighborhood in Marseille riddled with crime and unemployment. Or maybe you've picked Lionel Messi*, who had a reasonably financially stable family life but yet could only play because Barcelona offered to pay the medical bills for his human growth hormone deficiency. If footballers' collective backgrounds tell us anything, it's that poverty produces great players, diamonds waiting to be discovered. Diamonds that U.S. soccer absolutely refuses to mine.

*But you don't like Messi; he's not cool.

USGS (United States grassroots soccer, anything below MLS) operates on a pay-to-play basis. I know. I've participated in almost every level so far (hello PDL!) and I have seen many incredibly talented players give up, some forced to stop playing because of the expense. Many of the tryouts for all levels of grassroots are extraordinarily pricey, some even exceeding the cost for trying out for MLS teams; add that to cost of travel, lodging and transport and you can see how bleak the situation looks for those who aren't children of upper-middle-class parents.

Even for kids with no ambition of a higher level of play, who just want to enjoy Sunday leagues, the arm and leg charged for uniforms, equipment, games and referees will either deter them or make sure that they'll have to decide daily between that Gatorade or playing in the next game. Plus, most of the soccer facilities are nowhere near poor neighborhoods, the "inner cities." The kids unfortunate enough to be raised in such locales end up having to pay for travel on top of paying more than $300 for an hour on a field (I see you High Velocity sports).

A personal example: I live in an area that has two rival teams that are the Real Madrid/Barcelona for high school kids, a private university with NCAA credentials soccer-wise, one academy that I think promotes weed smoking and, if you travel an hour away from the city in any direction, facilities for indoor soccer.

The Clasico duo recruits their players from private schools around the area, the university -- I played there -- has a $40,000 a year tuition rate and recruits from those two rival teams. The local academy, to its credit, the best of the quadrivium for recruiting those players from lower-income brackets, though it still charges amazing prices. All of these factors -- the networks, the way the recruiting is set up, the price of tuition -- are ostracizing poorer players and (I will go on record as saying it) better players in exchange for those who constantly provide the funds grassroots soccer craves.

For a country with a population of 315,045,000, it's ridiculous that so few potential athletes are allowed past the financial gates of U.S. soccer and onto the pitch. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the current state of the sport in this country. Its wounds are self-inflicted. Before building up soccer in the country and giving everyone a fair chance at their American dream, U.S. soccer decided it would rather go after profits and moan that the quality of its product was below par.

Employing and giving the poor a chance to play soccer without financially ruining themselves would solve the issue but instead it seems that the powers that be are happier with soccer being a hobby of the upper middle class. And then complaining about it.

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