Cold, hard cash makes or breaks soccer talent in home of the brave

America at large: The prohibitive cost of developing young players in the US is militating against soccer’s progress

USA captain Clint Dempsey: journey from a trailer park in Nacogdoches, east Texas, to captaining the USA in Brazil almost veered off course because of money. Photographer: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

USA captain Clint Dempsey: journey from a trailer park in Nacogdoches, east Texas, to captaining the USA in Brazil almost veered off course because of money. Photographer: Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 12:00

Every four years, some Olympic sport captures the imagination of America’s children and undergoes an immediate upsurge in numbers.

Last time out, it was female gymnastics on the back of Gabby Douglas, the time before that Michael Phelps had kids begging to be brought to the pools. Following a World Cup run so freighted with the type of drama that turns casual spectators into lifelong devotees, youth soccer clubs all over this country are likely to be inundated with new arrivals over the coming weeks. Well, at least until the parents discover the prohibitive expense involved.

This is a very peculiar sporting nation. The better your son or daughter is at soccer the more into debt you may have to go to finance their passion. A year with one of the more reputable youth teams can set a family back anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000. The initial fees are to pay the coaches because, so the theory goes, if the people on the sidelines aren’t professionals, they can’t be any good. The cost rises from there because it wouldn’t be unheard of for a serious New York or Connecticut youth team to travel to Dallas, Orlando, Seattle and San Diego in the course of a season. Not to mention the odd jaunt to Europe.

Famously, Clint Dempsey’s improbable journey from a trailer park in Nacogdoches, east Texas to captaining the USA in Brazil almost veered off course because of money issues. When playing for the Dallas Texans, an elite youth team, his family struggled with the expense involved in driving him three hours each way to games and in underwriting his trips across the country for tournaments.

At one point, he had to quit the club and it was only when parents of his team-mates agreed to chip in to pay his way that he could afford to return. While Dempsey made it all the way to the show, how many other financially disadvantaged talents have fallen through the cracks in the meantime?

Across the world, soccer is seen as a way out of poverty and heralded because its simplicity (requiring just a ball and a patch of flat land, with or without grass) makes it so accessible and affordable. Not here. This country may yet fail to capitalise on the break-out popularity of this extraordinary World Cup because the youth game runs on an exclusionary, pay-to-play principle that disqualifies and discourages a large section of the potential talent pool.

Centre-half Omar Gonzalez might be on several Premier League radars this week but it’s not that long ago since he required a team-mate’s wealthy parents to fork over $1,500 so he could continue to play with his youth team each season. His plight highlights the difficulty so many Hispanic families across America face when trying to make sure their kids can play for the best soccer teams in the best leagues so they can be spotted by scouts.

Some clubs offer a few scholarships to allow children without the financial wherewithal to play. Many run fundraisers to make it easier on hard-up parents. But, there is still the troubling fact that hundreds of thousands of kids are effectively priced out of the sport. At a time when debate about youth development focuses on the need for quality coaching at crucial ages, only the very middle-class can afford to underwrite their children’s involvement at the highest level over a number of years. Especially when you discover this is a place where players can be asked to pay $500 and more to participate in a trial for the national development programme. And you thought the FAI had issues.

Right now, just about every American college campus is hosting a soccer camp for kids. They start at about $300 for five days, rising to well over double that sum for a week-long residential affair, the price going up if they can claim some sort of tenuous association with a European club.

Again, these fees exclude huge sections of the population and ensure the middle-class child will have an obvious advantage in terms of his or her development. Little wonder either that some American critics call soccer “a country club sport”, hardly a charge laid against it anywhere else on Earth.

Part of the problem is that so many parents are willing to pay this kind of money. Why? Many think this outlay can be recouped because, even if they don’t make it as a pro, their son or daughter may secure a four-year sports scholarship to a good university (which can be worth up to $250,000). If there’s a logic to that gamble, the health of the game in the USA isn’t served by making it so difficult for gifted kids to rise through the ranks, regardless of family income.

No sooner had the final whistle gone against Belgium on Tuesday than many in American soccer were debating the future direction of the game here. There are plenty of areas to address, from the growing influence of Major League Soccer youth academies to the need to break away from the archaic collegiate development system. But there is a nagging sense that somewhere the next Dempsey or Gonzalez may already be struggling to keep his spot in an elite team because his parents can’t afford the fees. More than anything else, that needs to change.

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