Great article revealing the flaws in the system of player development in the United States. Youth clubs should definitely be compensated for producing professional players. This would help keep the focus on development rather than on winning the next youth tournament. Definitely worth reading!
The Guardian- Elliot Turner - Wednesday 16 March 2016 05.45 EDT
In 2014, more than three million young Americans played for youth soccer clubs and ESPN estimates that 30% of young Americans play the game at some level. The Aspen Institute believes that approximately five million Americans play soccer – that’s roughly equivalent to half the population of Portugal. It’s trite and presumptuous to ask why the US has not produced a Lionel Messi, but you’d think that we could consistently turn out a Joao Moutinho or two. Yet we don’t. Why?
I interviewed youth soccer club coaches, scouts, parents and many others about the current state of player development in the US. Everybody agrees that progress has been made over the last 20 years, but disagree over the big next step forward. Here’s why.
For the last two decades, US Soccer’s reforms have been a game of Eurocentric follow-the-leader. France opened a national training center in 1988 and won the 1998 World Cup. In 1999, US Soccer opened the similar Bradenton residency program for under-17 players. In 2010, Spain won the World Cup with tiki-taka and a 4-3-3. One year later, US Soccer changed the youth curriculum to focus heavily on 4-3-3. Germany won the 2014 World Cup, so, in 2015, US Soccer hired Double-Pass, the company used by Die Mannschaft, to audit MLS and a some youth academies. See a pattern?
To date, the most important reform for many has been pushing both high school and college soccer to adopt a 10-month season. The idea is that soccer is a year-round sport, a concept foreign to the average American sports fan. For high schoolers, in theory the longer season means that players must choose between playing for a top youth club or their school team. At first, this rubbed many coaches and players the wrong way. MLS academies often require a player to choose one or the other. However, in most states the high school soccer season only lasts a few months, so some non-MLS youth clubs let players skip training during the week and attend club games when possible. The college soccer coaches the Guardian spoke with are excited by a 10-month season, but are waiting for the NCAA to approve.
Still, these reforms only concern players approaching the age that many turn pro. What about younger kids? How does Argentina groom the next wave of great players? The Guardian spoke to Maxi Rodriguez and JR Eskilson, analysts for Top Drawer Soccer, a professional site that scouts and ranks youth soccer players. The recent US Soccer reforms did not impress them.
Even the recent overhaul of youth coach licensing was labeled by Eskilson as “putting a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling building.” Rather, they reasoned, things will only improve when youth clubs can prosper financially from producing an elite player. As the New York Times noted in a story on the Ajax Academy, the focus is producing a gem of a professional player and recouping funds – which can then help improve facilities and coaching at the academy – rather than winning youth tournaments. For the last few decades, the focus at the youth level in the US has been fielding a team that wins today, not preparing a possible professional player years later. These two goals are not mutually exclusive, but at some point the demands of the present conflict with those of the future.
Top Drawer Soccer and many parents and coaches surveyed agree that the biggest problem for talented young American players is the pay-to-play model. Players who are under 15 and want to compete at a high level need to impress in a tryout and then their parents need to shell out between $1,000 to $1,500 per year. Every coach has a story about a talented kid who disappeared suddenly, probably due to financial issues or a lack of parental support.
Yet the pay-to-play model is not an impassable obstacle. Many youth clubs offer both scholarships for exceptional players and fee waivers for those in financial need. Sometimes coaches will offer talented players on a recreational team a steep discount to get them to try the academy program. Clubs also offer monthly payment plans. When you divide those fees by 12, a $100 payment per month does not look quite so intimidating (at least for parents with middle-class earnings).
The biggest advance in US youth development in the last decade arguably has been MLS academies. Entry is highly competitive, they require four days of training a week, and are free (or charge a nominal fee for younger age groups). The MLS academies offer free and elite instruction, a model that is a direct affront to the entrenched pay-to-play model. Despite being in competition, the youth clubs around Houston had great things to say about MLS academy coaches and players - the individuals are focused and driven, but still approachable and cordial. MLS youth teams regularly scrimmage with local clubs.
The MLS academies have already started to turn out professionals. Since 2007, 150 “homegrown” players – that is to say youngsters developed in the league’s academies – have signed for MLS, including Jordan Morris and Matt Miazga. However, MLS academies can only accept so many players. Additionally, identifying players at such a young age is perhaps more art than science. Talent blossoms at different ages.
So how can non-MLS academies, who train the majority of young US players, improve and move away from the pay-to-play system? Fifa has two regulations designed to address the issue: training fees and solidarity payments. A solidarity payment kicks in when a professional club sells a player before their contract ends. The buying club is supposed to withhold 5% of the transfer fee to then pay to youth clubs who trained the player. Training fees should be paid when a player under age 23 signs his or her first pro contract.
Here’s an example to clarify the differences. Let’s say a player named Matt is 22 years of age and signs his first professional contract with MLS. He trained for several years with an independent youth club. MLS would owe a percentage of funds to Matt’s youth club based on the time he trained there. That’s the training fee mechanism. Flash forward a few years and MLS sells Matt to Manchester City for $5m. Manchester City would need to retain 5% of the fee to pay to Matt’s youth clubs. And if City then sold Matt back to MLS for $10m, MLS would need to retain 5% of the fee to pay youth clubs. That’s the solidarity mechanism.
For years, youth clubs in the US did not seek those funds. However, as reported by Vice, a growing number of US youth clubs have requested solidarity fees after big MLS-to-Europe transfers. In speaking with the legal counsel for Crossfire and the Texans, two such youth clubs, their position is that these fees will be reinvested to improve the quality of coaching and expand capacity. The clubs can hire more full-time coaches and give more scholarships to worthy players. Both are laudable goals.
Sadly, youth clubs have faced stiff resistance in collecting these fees. In the case of the Yedlin-to-Spurs transfer, Crossfire (Yedlin’s youth club) sought a solidarity fee from Spurs, but MLS allegedly intervened to demand it receive those funds. Thus, a few clubs, including Crossfire, have filed formal petitions with the Fifa Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) because clubs refused to pay them. Sadly, this is where the situation gets complex and the water murky. Rather than embracing the Fifa regulations on solidarity payments and training fees, MLS and even US Soccer have fought to prevent them from happening.
The Guardian has seen documents related to one such dispute. In 2008, the Dallas Texans, a prominent youth club, filed a formal petition to the Fifa DRC and requested solidarity payments from Fulham for the transfer of Clint Dempsey. Fulham responded that MLS had told them US laws prevented such payments, so they had not withheld 5% of the transfer fee. On 6 March 2008, a fax was sent to Fifa by Timothy Pinto, general counsel for US Soccer, who disputed any such payment because the Texans were “not a direct member of US Soccer” and the payment “directly contravenes US law”. The fax goes on to state that US Soccer would be “directly asking that they withdraw their claim” and “exploring whether disciplinary action against the Dallas Texans might be necessary”. Not surprisingly, the Texans withdrew their claim.
Despite this vague threat, other clubs have not been deterred. In response to a recent wave of DRC petitions, US Soccer convened a meeting with youth clubs and MLS in the fall of 2015. Lance Reich, counsel for several youth clubs, attended but was dissatisfied afterwards. He felt that US Soccer made vague promises, but mostly bucked responsibility and painted itself as hopelessly stuck in the middle. From the perspective of youth soccer clubs, MLS is pressuring them into not accepting funds that legally belong to them and could be used to further improve their programs. It’s odd that US Soccer complains today that the federation can do little about these fees, but directly intervened in the 2008 MLS-Texans ordeal.
Of course, US Soccer justifies its inaction due to supposed legal red flags. The federation and MLS have argued that such fees are illegal. But are they right? To date, I have seen three different legal theories. First, it was argued that these payments violated child labor law in the US. This claim was soundly refuted in an article in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law. Youth soccer is not an employment relationship. Additionally, the only national law to prohibit child labor in the US, the Fair Labor Standards Act, only applies to children under the age of 16. Thus, clubs should be able to get some fees for players trained over that age.
In a recent Senate hearing on the matter, US Soccer espoused a new legal theory: recent court decisions in Europe prohibited these fees because of the Bosman rulingand the argument that said fees limit the movement of players. This theory, though, has some gaping holes. For example, why would European law apply to the US and training fees paid here by MLS to a US youth club? More importantly, despite these alleged European court decisions, the Fifa DRC, based in Switzerland, continues to regularly award these fees.
US Soccer’s most intriguing argument stems from the 1996 lawsuit Fraser v MLS. Ted Philipakos, a player agent, professor at NYU and author whose book includes a full chapter on the Fraser case explains that, in July 1997, US Soccer, a co-defendant in a lawsuit filed by the players’ union, accepted a consent decree that was designed to ensure that the pre-Bosman transfer system or anything similar would not take root in America. US Soccer agreed not to impose, implement or enforce Fifa regulations “relating to the payment of transfer fees or training and development fees”, and now claims that bar applies to training compensation and solidarity contribution. Philipakos doesn’t think US Soccer is being unreasonable in its interpretation. The MLS Players Union shares US Soccer’s position.
Beyond the unresolved legal question, in a public statementthe federation revealed their true concern: unlike Europe, in the US “the cost of player training and development was typically borne by the families of young players.” Thus, from US Soccer’s perspective, it’s a two-bites-at-the cherry issue: youth clubs got paid by parents to train young players, and now want to get paid again when a few of those kids reach the highest level.
Reich told the Guardian that he still harbors hope that US Soccer may implement a national DRC to address these disputes. After all, the Canadian Soccer Federation has one (although few national federations do). However, if US Soccer set up a domestic resolution system, they could face a lawsuit for violating Fraser from the MLSPU. Additionally, they’d take on new expenses in setting up any sort of tribunal. Finally, by making it easier to file petitions for these fees, a wave of claims could come crashing over their heads.
In the big picture, there are two disheartening aspects to this dispute. First is the disparity in power and priorities. MLS clubs arevalued at an average of $157m. Even if MLS made training payments of $7,500 each to youth clubs for all 84 players in the latest MLS Super Draft, the total would come to $630,000. By comparison, each MLS club has $800,000 per year of targeted allocation money to play with. A few thousand dollars is chump change for an MLS club, but can mean more scholarships for a youth soccer club. Second, and most importantly, youth soccer is divided in the US and the perception of US Soccer is poor.
Ultimately, only action at Fifa may spur change. The youth clubs who filed their petitions last fall before the DRC and expected a decision within three months (the norm) are still waiting. According to a source, Fifa even appointed a three-judge panel for one of the petitions because the decision will have a precedental effect. A judgment for Crossfire, the youth club in the Yedlin dispute, may finally spur US Soccer into action beyond meetings, but, conversely, an adverse ruling could reinforce the status quo.
Still, the status quo may not be so bad. Historically, many year-round elite baseball and basketball teams in the US have used a pay-to-play model with scholarships and fee waivers. Yes, those sports are less popular around the world than soccer, but the US still produces top talent. However, as interest in soccer grows and the sport becomes the first-choice for more children, perhaps the pay-to-play model will benefit from higher numbers. Could the problem not be the funnel, but how much is being poured in?
The game, coaches and players have improved beyond the expectation of many American soccer fans over the last couple of decades. As interest in soccer grows, training and solidarity fees could further improve how we train young players and expand who gets access to training. More importantly, MLS and youth clubs could hopefully get on the same page. A bit of solidarity could go a long way.
US Soccer, MLS and the MLSPU did not respond to requests for comment on this article.