This is the second article in the series “Welcome to American Soccer,” which focuses on equal treatment and access to soccer in the United States. The articles focus on where U.S. Soccer stands on a variety of issues and where they need to improve.
At an event ahead of last year’s World Cup, a group of ESPN commentators gathered in Manhattan to discuss the upcoming tournament. As the conversation shifted to the United States, who would be missing the highest-level men’s competition for the first time in 32 years, Herculez Gomez went off on the pay-to-play system that operates in the United States.
Gomez admitted that he never would have been able to play soccer had it not been for certain people stepping up to help. He and his brothers had a benefactor who wrote an annual check of $25,000 and a coach that was willing to drive an extra 45 minutes to and from practice.
“It’s very difficult for young immigrant families to pay to play,” Gomez said. “Oftentimes these Latin American kids—it’s not just Mexican-American kids, it’s all walks of life—get overlooked because they don’t have the funds. It’s very much a suburban sport.”
Shaka Hislop was the goalkeeper for Trinidad and Tobago in their 2006 World Cup experience. Now, he’s raising his kids in America, and he’s seen first-hand how much of an investment is required.
“It’s expensive. In all honesty, unless you earn a certain amount you just can’t stay in the game,” Hislop said. “That’s a detriment of the wider player pool, and, honestly, I don’t know what the other option is. There are a lot of opportunities in the game, but they come at a cost and as a result, I think a significant portion of the talent pool is being overlooked.”
Soccer in the United States operates as a “pay-to-play” system. If you want to make it to the highest levels of U.S. Soccer, you’re not going to get there by playing in your recreational league. Instead, you’ll need to join a travel or club team, where costs usually exceed thousands of dollars. Children who come from middle- or lower-class backgrounds, who can’t afford $3,000 a year just to play their sport, never have a chance of being noticed and may never be introduced to soccer in the first place.
This problem has been confirmed by studies on the topic. Roger Bennett and Greg Kaplan published a study in 2013 on the pay-to-play system in the U.S. They compared the background of each U.S. men’s national team member from 1993 to 2003 to each NBA all star and NFL pro bowler over the same period. Using hometown zip codes as an indicator for socio-economic status, the study found that soccer players come from communities that had higher incomes, educational and employment rankings, and were whiter than the U.S. on average. By comparison, NBA and NFL players came from places that ranked below the average on the same indicators.
In many ways, the pay-to-play system has become accepted as an unfortunate reality. Most people understand that it is a problem, but it’s almost impossible do anything about it without reaching the highest levels of U.S. Soccer. But there has been more discussion around it in the last year or two, spurred by two events: the U.S. Soccer presidential election and the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers.
During the U.S. Soccer presidential election, many candidates mentioned pay-to-play in their platform and campaigning. Hope Solo made the pay-to-play system central to her argument. She started her announcement by explaining her own experiences with the pay-to-play system, and shared that she wouldn’t have made it without a lot of help from friends, family, and her community. She went on to talk about her belief that the problems in U.S. soccer start at the youth level.
“Soccer has always been a middle class sport and in more recent times, has become an upper middle class sport,” Solo said. “Some of the best clubs around the country charge each youth player between $3000-$5000 per season. I have personally witnessed young players heartbroken over the financial reality that they could no longer pursue their dream.”
Solo’s raw approach to the topic of pay-to-play, and the boldness of her run overall, got the attention of a lot of people. But the issue of pay-to-play also seemed impossible to ignore after the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Based on population alone, the United States should have an over-abundance of top-level soccer talent. Many have suggested that the United States could be one of the best soccer countries in the world if we made the game accessible to all people, from all walks of life. But because of pay-to-play, all kids aren’t being given the same opportunities. And as long as certain communities are denied the chance to be successful, the U.S. can never reach its full potential.
Despite the roaring voices of disapproval, there have been very few concrete proposals of how pay-to-play might end. And when former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati was asked about it during the elections, he offered little hope that the highest levels of soccer are seriously thinking about change.
“There’s nowhere in the world that has no pay-to-play,” Gulati said. “What you want to make sure of is that anybody can afford it. But you have millions of kids playing, and the thought that we’re going to end play-to-play is nonsensical.”
Gulati might be right. But there is another reason why some people are so desperate to keep pay-to-play alive: it is a multi-billion-dollar industry. It seems that U.S. Soccer, like many industries, will go where the money is, even if that means leaving some kids behind.
Which seems like odd behavior for an organization deemed a “non-profit.”
So, maybe you can’t eliminate pay-to-play. Maybe the goal of making soccer available to anyone who wants to play is “nonsensical.” But we won’t know if we don’t try, so let that be our north star. U.S. Soccer has an obligation to make soccer in the United States open to people from all walks of life. People shouldn’t be left out because they can’t pay an entry fee.