The vision statement for US Club Soccer is pretty ambitious for an organization with some 500,000 youth participants and 70,000 registered coaches: “US Club Soccer will be the finest soccer organization in America and an integral part of U.S. National Team success.”
Since the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in three decades after a stunning loss to Trinidad and Tobago last month, the knives are out, the second guessing is plentiful and the panic is evident in resignations and recriminations.
Kevin Payne, the CEO of US Club Soccer, isn’t going anywhere. He’s planning to dig in and try to help solve the issues of why American soccer is facing some immense challenges and what can be done to soothe a collective psyche that is reeling.
“What is needed is to stop thinking there’s a single thing we need to do like throwing a light switch,” he said. “There’s a number of reasons countries produce better players than us. I would argue what they are taught in training is more important than where they are training. We lost a soccer game. We need to get better. Those in the business know we need to get better.”
US Club Soccer is a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and Payne believes there needs to be a “culture change” in how to develop youth players.
“The best way to measure soccer experience isn’t by wins and losses,” he said. “Our country for 30 years has encouraged youth soccer coaches to win games. That’s their mission. If you go to Argentina, Brazil, France or Germany, that’s not what the coaches are working on. They want to win matches, but the idea is how do we develop individual players?
“We have to reorientate our thinking away from winning youth soccer games and more to developing good players. We have to convince parents and then convince coaches to look at their jobs that way.”
Payne was chairman of a technical committee that helped create the elite Academy leagues in 2007 that were supposed to bring together top teenage boys’ players to train under top coaches in high-quality competitions. The league has resulted in numerous players being prevented from playing high school soccer in Southern California, leading to ill feelings and debate. They’re forced to choose one or the other.
Now more trouble is brewing. U.S. Soccer is trying to do for the girls what it did for the boys, creating the girls’ version of the Academy league. This will be its first season, and girls’ players are abandoning high school teams in droves. West Hills Chaminade has lost eight players this season to the Academy league. Granada Hills lost its top two players.
“Are these kids guaranteed a better opportunity for a national team spot or a college scholarship?” Chaminade girls’ coach Mike Evans asked.
Boys’ players thought that was the case, but many have started returning to their high school teams. Payne does not agree with the way the Academy league has evolved and the conflicts it’s creating.
“I’ve said long before we lost a soccer match in Trinidad the Academy program needs to be much more connected to youth soccer than it is,” he said. “It needs to be much more of a positive influence on the rest of the soccer environment in the way kids are trained.”
Marvin Mires, the boys’ soccer coach at Downey, offered this opinion: “Payne and club soccer need to address the development of a player at the initial stages he is introduced to soccer. We are doing it all wrong, even the basics. Our players don’t know what foot to receive a ball with and what body position to have when receiving it. This would be the equivalent to how to pass a football or shoot a basketball.”
Payne does not agree that a pay-to-play mentality is part of youth soccer. That’s what many critics say exists. If you have money, doors open.
“If a kid has any talent to play for a club, they end up playing for the club,” he said. “The club will scholarship him. I don’t think there are too many kids missing out on soccer because they can’t afford to pay the fees to the club.”
He said there are initiatives trying to bring more first- and second-generation Americans into the soccer movement.
So where does American soccer go from here?
“At the same time our nation was failing to qualify for the World Cup, our under-17 team won a game in the knockout round over Paraguay,” he said of a U.S. squad that reached the quarterfinals of the Biennial International Championship. “We shouldn’t look at the national team failing to qualify and scream, ‘We have to blow everything up because it’s all wrong’ just like we shouldn’t look at the win over Paraguay as everything is going great.
“We do have to be willing to be more clear-eyed and self critical about the relative qualities of the players we’re developing. If I watch the national team for the top teams in the world, their players look different than our players. They’re more comfortable on the ball. They’re more natural in the way they move. They’re more tactically aware. Everything looks easier.
“We’ve improved in the quality of players, but we’ve traditionally been able to bridge the gap through effort, athleticism and determination. We need to get to the point we have have the same but the soccer part gets better.’’
Mires said one lesson must be learned.
“Until club soccer decides how to coach coaches and how to develop players at the initial stages, we will always be behind,” he said.