For Soccer to Flourish in the U.S., Its Doors Must Open
In the aftermath of a strong performance by the national team in the Confederations Cup, U.S. Soccer officials are confident that the sport’s time has arrived here.
They are excited about the prospect of bringing young Hispanic and African-Americans into the mainstream. But any discussion about the future of soccer in the United States is like turning over a gigantic stone that has been in place for decades. Underneath is a colony of issues, involving race, ethnicity and economics.
Talking about attracting a new demographic to soccer is fine, but the reality is, the cost of participation puts soccer beyond the reach of many. As in so many other sports, we have created a system that produces not so much the best players, but the best players who can afford to play.
“One of the issues we have in the United States is that elite-level soccer at a youth level is and has been for the most part pay to play,” said Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation. “Clearly then, when you are talking about economically disadvantaged inner city, you’ve got a problem.”
The challenge of attracting Hispanics and African-Americans is vastly different. Young Latinos have already embraced soccer. The issue is bringing them into federation programs, “knowing where they are and identifying them,” Gulati said.
“African-Americans,” he said, “represent longer-term challenges because soccer is not as popular in the same way.”
The challenges soccer faces are not new, but perhaps more can be done at a time when football and basketball have saturated poorer neighborhoods. The question is how to persuade young athletes to make soccer their sport of choice.
“If we can get the star athletes when they are 13, 14, 15, 16 to stay with soccer rather than play other sports where the economic payday down the road may be greater, that would be a plus for us,” Gulati said. “If we can get the best athlete interested in soccer, that’s a plus. We’ve got to do more in that community.”
Irv Smalls, the executive director of Harlem Youth Soccer, said the key to tapping the raw resources of economically disadvantaged communities was supporting local youth leagues. These leagues, he said, must become part of the social fabric of the community, as natural a part of life as the corner grocery store.
Smalls was part of the traditional sports pipeline. He grew up in Pennsylvania and played football for three seasons at Penn State. Before Harlem Youth Soccer, he worked for Major League Soccer, primarily to gain sports administration experience.
After watching the 2002 World Cup, Smalls said, he became so turned on to the sport that he became dedicated to spreading the gospel of soccer in Harlem. It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been cheap, but Smalls is convinced that the only way the sport will blossom in communities like Harlem is if the teams are operated and run primarily by African-Americans.
Harlem Youth Soccer was founded in 1990 by Dwight and Iris Raiford, who also founded Harlem Little League.
“We’re the ones who really know what is in the best interest of our kids,” Smalls said. “It has to be a grass-roots initiative and the movement has to come from the inner city.”
Luis Montoya, who founded the Big Apple Youth Soccer League in Queens 11 years ago, made a similar point about Hispanic youth. Local involvement, he said, is essential.
“If you are a white man with blue eyes and you are coming to my Latino community, what do you think the parents of my kids are going to think about you?” he said. “The first question will be, What does the white guy want? If I go to the Latino community, I speak to them in their own language. There’s a different approach.”
Then there’s Don Sheppard. “I’m a different kind of Latino,” Sheppard said. “I’m Canadian.”
Sheppard walked into a Hispanic community in Los Angeles four years ago with resources and a vision. He had just retired and sold his business, and he had a dream: He founded the Los Angeles Futbol Club, which has become one of the most highly regarded youth soccer leagues in the country.
Sheppard eliminated the fees that most clubs use to support themselves but which also serve as barriers to wide participation.
“Some of the best soccer players, Latino youth, have been left out of the mainstream of soccer because they couldn’t pay,” Sheppard said. “We changed that because we removed the pay-to-play. That’s been a huge barrier.”
Last year, the Los Angeles Futbol Club formed an alliance with Chelsea, a club in the English Premier League that has an alliance with two other youth clubs in the United States. Chelsea will provide additional financial support as well as coaching and, for some, an opportunity to train in England once a year.
This is all well and good, but the key for soccer to be what it really can be in the United States is local initiative.
“We’ve got to build those leagues in the communities,” Sheppard said, “run by people that they trust, coached by people that they trust but supported by people like L.A.F.C., who want to help them get into soccer.”
United States soccer officials say the sport’s time is finally here. The question is, do they know how to seize the moment?