The United States Men’s National Soccer Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup for the first time in 31 years after a massive upset loss to the 99th ranked Trinidad & Tobago. Growing up as a sports fan, I look forward to every four years where the best around the world convene in one country to showcase their talent and compete for arguably the greatest award in the entirety of sports – a World Cup Championship. The United States sits as the third most populated country in the world with around 326 million people, dominates every Olympics – summer and winter – and produces some of the best male athletes the world has ever seen, including Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Tom Brady, and Lebron James. – It would be easy to think that this particular country would not only trounce through the qualifying rounds for the World Cup, but be serious contenders for each and every World Cup. This is far from the truth, as the United States failed to get out of the mediocrity of the CONCACAF region, composed of countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras – all of which finished above the United States in this World Cup’s qualifying round.
So what is it? Why can’t the United States compete on an International level? There are a multitude of answers on a short term level – coaching, lack of talent, no leadership, the absence of accountability and pressure from fans back home, and the failure to work together as a team. As far as the long term is concerned, however, when looking at the current system put in place to cultivate talent at a young age, it is clear that the “Pay to Play” system has got to go.
Now, what exactly is the “Pay to Play” system? To put it simply, you have to pay a certain amount of money to play soccer at a competitive level. This system is engrained into the American youth soccer system. These costs aren’t cheap either, as Goal.com’s Peter Stauton writes in his article, “How Many Howards and Dempsey’s are the US Losing Due To Pay to Play?” Emerald City Club in Washington, national team’s right-back DeAndre Yedlin’s former club, has fees that run at about $1,300 per season, and a uniform will cost another $250- $350 on top of the specific team’s fee. Star United States striker Jozy Altidore was previously a player for the Academy Program, located in Boca Raton, Florida. The “Academy Program” is described as a “top-level” program that hosts 14-23 year olds, and costs $3,000 per month plus $125 for a uniform. Although some clubs offer scholarship programs, these programs have very heavy stipulations; the well-known Southern California club, Patedores, charges parents of players between the ages of 11 and 13 around $1,950 per season, and in addition has some pretty binding obligations:
If the player does not fulfill his commitment for the entire season then he shall forfeit his scholarship and all club and teams fees are expected to be paid in full by the family prior to the player’s release. In the event that the player leaves the team, the balance of the player fees need to be paid in full before the player can transfer to another team. No refunds will be given after the first day of training.
Even with a scholarship, if a player’s parent doesn’t have $2,000 to $3,000 at their disposal then that player won’t be able to play at the highest level of soccer in America. Competitive youth soccer in America – a sport regarded as the cheapest sport across the world – has been taken hostage by the upper-middle class, forcing lower income players to resort to lower competition or, in most cases, other sports, regardless of athletic ability.
This form of competition was highlighted and called-out by several former players and sports analysts, including former United States Men’s National Team player and Fox Sports Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, who blasted this U.S. Men’s National Team just weeks before the disappointing loss to Trinidad and Tobago, asking them the daunting question of, “Are you gonna continue to be a bunch of soft, underperforming, tattooed millionaires? You are a soccer generation that has been given everything. You are a soccer generation who is on the verge of squandering everything.” Squander everything, they did.
This type of rhetoric wasn’t unusual towards the end of the tumultuous qualifying for the “underperforming” team. ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman called the failure to qualify a “complete embarrassment,” and added a critique to the pay-to-play system that dominates American soccer today. When Twellman was asked, “What should change?” in regards to the United States Soccer Federation after the team’s loss in Trinidad, he responded with “Everything, from top to bottom.” In addition, he stated “It’s a pay-to-play sport. On average American kids are paying $2,500-$3,500 a year, to play elite soccer. That’s not what the rest of the world is doing. If you don’t change after this, then what’s the point?”
Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports deemed American soccer as “suburban soft” and decried the soccer culture of the United States as a whole as “softer than a down-comforter.” He compared America’s soccer culture to the likes of Brazil’s and Germany’s, saying that in other nations “there is passion and urgency,” but in America, “there is arrogance, forgiveness, even the soccer media is overwhelmingly toothless.”
Although the popularity of the sport has grown immensely since both the United States World Cup in 1994 and the inception of Major League Soccer in 1996, the overall grit and cooperation that is so prevalent overseas still hasn’t made an appearance in the States. The past two under-23 year old men’s teams haven’t been able to qualify for the Olympics – a disappointment that’s exemplified during the qualifying stages of the World Cup this year, as a generation of soccer players in America just seemed to be missing from the pitch.
Are these players missing the game of soccer, or is the game of soccer missing these players? Despite the United States’ dominance in other widely popular sports, we still have yet to produce a superstar player like Messi or Ronaldo, as this player could easily be hidden in a lower-socioeconomic community like so many of our star athletes that are dominating headlines today. With the pay-to-play system being the only pipeline for America’s youth players, it may be the time to take a look at how world’s most inexpensive sport is being treated in this country. You can’t buy yourself into a World Cup contention; you can only play your way in.