Soccer in the U.S.: Where do we go from here?
Professional sports are big business in the United States. We love our teams, idolize our athletes and pay top dollar to attend games. So, it may come as a surprise to learn that according to Forbes, Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, each valued at approximately $4.1 billion, are worth more and have greater annual revenue than the New York Yankees (valued at $4 billion), New England Patriots ($3.7 billion), New York Knicks ($3.6 billion) and Los Angeles Lakers ($3.3 billion).
Lionel Messi, whose total annual compensation equals $111 million, and Cristiano Ronaldo ($108 million) each earn more than LeBron James ($85.5 million), Steph Curry ($76.9 million), Matt Ryan ($67.3 million) and Tiger Woods ($43.3 million).
How can it be that a country that produced “Monday Night Football,” the World Series and the NBA Finals lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to soccer? Why didn’t the U.S. qualify for the 2018 World Cup? How did the American team manage to lose to Trinidad and Tobago, a country one-tenth the size of Los Angeles County?
While an increase in the popularity of soccer here is unmistakable, soccer in America remains something of a missed opportunity. The problem is that our “pay-to-play” system, whereby players pay to belong to a “club” that provides coaching, uniforms and field space, is over-engineered and has obfuscated “play” in the true sense of the word. Our young players don’t play enough.
How can this be? They typically practice at least twice a week and play at least one weekend game during fall and spring. They attend soccer camps and participate in tournaments. They can incur thousands of dollars in expenditures.
But they don’t really “play.” Practice can involve a long drive, warmups, skill work and tactical exercises with a 20-minute scrimmage at the end. Actual games also involve car time, warmups, stretching, drills and chalk talks, after which kids are assigned certain positions with restricted movements or roles: 22 players and one ball on a field of 8,000 square feet.
Contrast this with what happens in Costa Rica, a country to which the U.S. lost twice in World Cup qualifying. A youth team in Costa Rica might “train” only one day a week, but on other days, groups of kids gather on the beach, find four sticks to use as goalposts, divide themselves into teams and play until dark. It doesn’t matter that the beach is sloped 10 degrees and the ball might roll into the ocean. There is exuberance — yelling, arguing, teasing and celebrating. With all this play time, the kids get good.
Also, people gather around televisions in houses, stores, cafés and bars to watch pro games. Cab drivers and others have the game on the radio. Kids intermingle with adults and take in the emotion and passionate commentary. They know the players and have heroes. They try out moves seen on television, and when new moves produce a goal, the kids celebrate and shout the name of their favorite player. This environment allows them to learn, lead, negotiate, lose, win, cooperate, take initiative, communicate, think strategically, weigh risks and be diplomatic. Except for perhaps the far-flung dream of playing professional soccer, there is no goal for these kids except to “play” — because it’s fun, it provides belonging, an avenue to flow, meaning and transcendence of daily life.
Magically, this takes place every day without a single adult. One official team practice per week is enough. And with this happening on a thousand makeshift fields across the country, moves first perfected on a beach helped eliminate the U.S. from World Cup competition.
How can this be fixed? While the U.S. never will have Latin village culture, something akin to the emotional appeal of soccer in other countries happens now with basketball. Kids play pickup games on their own — without adults, referees or uniforms — because they love it. They have heroes: They want to be like Mike, Kobe, LeBron and Steph. This helps them develop.
U.S. youth soccer clubs and MLS teams can help replicate this environment by providing open field space to children for pickup games. Some balls, training vests, portable small goals and maybe a few enthusiastic adults would be enough.
What else? The U.S. market is ready for an entertaining and provocative soccer talk show comparable to “Inside the NBA,” with the soccer equivalents of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson: a program composed of humor and fun along with informed insights about soccer. Soccer programming also could address foreign cultures and international issues the way Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” did through food.
The end game for soccer in the United States could be huge. Events like the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game and the World Series produce hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the host city. Taking soccer to a world-class level in the United States could produce similar results.
Peter Quies is a former professional soccer player and youth coach and is a senior consultant at Micronomics. Joe Hale and Roy Weinstein are Micronomics consultants.