On October 10, 2017, United States Soccer hit a stunning low point. Needing only a draw to advance to the 2018 World Cup, the men’s national team instead lost 2-1 to low-ranked Trinidad and Tobago,marking the first time that the US would not qualify for a World Cup since 1986. For a nation supposedly intent on competing on the global soccer stage, the loss exposed the cold truth about American soccer: It is headed in the wrong direction. Indeed, a year after the catastrophe in Trinidad, US men’s soccer remains rudderless. The men’s national team is experiencing a dearth of experienced talent due to a broken academy system.
In the aftermath of the crushing failure to earn a World Cup spot, fingers were pointed in all directions, but no one addressed the main factor holding back US soccer. The United States’ lack of success in men’s soccer can be boiled down to this curious statistic: Families who make over $100,000 annually account for 35 percent of youth soccer players, while those who make less than $25,000 annually consist of only 13 percent. Youth soccer in the United States is inaccessible, and nobody seems to care.
Youth soccer in the United States relies on expensive club teams that kids must join to get noticed by talent scouts and colleges. The system has been dubbed “pay-to-play,” since parents must often spend over $10,000 per year for their kids to join some soccer clubs. Low-income soccer players in the US are thus never given a fair chance to compete. One study found that low-income boys are 50 percent more likely to participate in basketball than soccer due to cost. As Villanova sociology professor Rick Eckstein put it, the result is a “system more attuned to identifying the best payers than the best players.” This is highly ironic, considering the sport has historically been viewed as the world’s great democratic game due to its inherent simplicity.
By setting financial barriers and failing to cultivate its best athletes, the US has consigned itself to generations of relative mediocrity in global men’s soccer.
Of course, US women’s soccer has charted an entirely different course. The women’s national team is a globally dominant force despite relying on the same pay-to-play system as the men’s game. However, women’s soccer in the US has unique advantages that overcome the problem of expensive youth soccer. In many countries, women’s soccer was banned until fairly recently, but Title IX—which ensures that federally-funded programs spend just as much on women’s soccer as on men’s—gave the US a head start. Largely as a result of this, the United States boasts more than half of the world’s women’s youth soccer players. Still, the national women’s team is not representative of the general population, reflecting barriers that exist at every level of American soccer.
The US youth system must rapidly change to start developing the country’s top male talent before the United States hosts the 2026 World Cup. And the federal government can catalyze that change. A government-subsidized program aimed at making soccer more affordable for all Americans would increase the US soccer’s competitiveness on a global scale and bring about positive impacts for the country as a whole.
At first glance, the United States government spending millions of dollars in the name of developing soccer might appear to be pure fantasy. Yet local organizations such a DC’s Open Goal project and San Antonio’s Urban Leadership Academy provide blueprints for such a program. The Urban Leadership Academy employs a blend of fundraising efforts, networking with local businesses for partnerships, and selective scholarship offerings to keep seasonal costs of club soccer between $350 and $750. Using these existing local programs as models, the government could subsidize a national network of similar organizations that strive to break down the financial barriers to kids’ soccer dreams.
Belgium offers a model of success. In response to a disappointing exit during the group stages of the 1998 World Cup, the Belgian soccer federation partnered with the national government to create eight fully funded “Topsport” academies that recruit the most talented teenagers around the entire country regardless of income level. With graduates including Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, and Dries Mertens, the academies have played a major role in the recent success of a Belgian “golden generation,” which managed a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup. With a similar initiative, the US government could usher in a new era of American soccer categorized by inclusion and success.
A government-subsidized program aimed at tackling socioeconomic inequality would improve the diversity of soccer in the United States. Soccer in America is, to many, a “rich, white-kid sport.” The thousands of dollars in per-year expenses clearly present a significant barrier to entry for many. For example, although soccer is overwhelmingly popular among Latin Americans, they are “scantily represented” in US soccer programs in part because of the cost barrier. This diversity problem is fully on display in the makeup of the men’s national team itself. Only a third of the current roster is non-white, and several of the non-white players grew up overseas. Locally based, government-sponsored organizations could lower the costs associated with youth soccer and make it an equal-opportunity sport. Although such a program would ultimately cost millions, countries such as China are spending billions to accelerate the development of their national soccer teams. If the United States is truly serious about putting on a good showing in 2026, a better, more inclusive youth system is of paramount importance.
A competitive men’s national team could also improve national unity. Not only would the public root for a diverse men’s national team by 2026, but a successful run in a World Cup on home soil promises to bring the country closer together. The French “Black, Beur, Blanc” team’s triumph in the 1998 World Cup is a telling example. During a period of heavy racial tensions, the victory of the diverse French national team offered a brief respite from national politics and a sign of French unity. For the United States, a successful showing at the 2026 World Cup with a diverse men’s national team could do the same.
As it stands, soccer is broken in the United States. The beautiful game has been twisted into the equivalent of a gated community—open only to those fortunate enough to be able to pay their way in. For every Clint Dempsey who somehow scrapes and sacrifices their way to a college scholarship, there are thousands of young Americans who are forced to relinquish their soccer aspirations each season due to financial barriers. A government initiative to spread soccer to everyone, regardless of economic background, would save the US from embarrassing itself at the 2026 World Cup. It would also present an opportunity to end the pervasive inequality of US soccer and build an inclusive national movement behind the sport.
Photo: “American Flag“