Changes Are Great …. But We Could Use More
A new column from Stanley Holmes on the ever changing State of Affairs in youth soccer – and the news you want to know that impacts the game. The current topic rocking the youth soccer world: the new USSF mandates.
I applaud the US Soccer Federation for announcing some dramatic changes to improve the development of youth soccer in the United States.
Few can argue against the benefits of moving to small-sided soccer and focusing on skill development rather than winning. Moving to birth year also makes a lot of sense.
But we could use some more help.
As the president of a 20,000- member competitive soccer league in Washington state, we already are developing plans to meet the mandates by the Fall of 2016. But more visible and active leadership from the US Federation would clearly make this difficult transition go more smoothly, as clubs, leagues and associations all struggle to comprehend and carry out these big changes.
We need more than a video presentation, a PowerPoint and some talking points posted on the website. We need face-to-face regional meetings, we need more financial resources, and we need a long-term vision and a business plan for implementation.
The new Player Development Initiative gives the federation an incredible opportunity to lead the soccer community at all levels of the game – but particularly at the recreational and select levels of the sport – where help is needed most.
It could use the mandates to reach down to the grass roots and help raise the standards and redefine their roles more clearly in a changing landscape.
The USSF mandates on player development initiatives raise more questions on the future of youth soccer than they answer. For example, as youth soccer turns to more professionally managed clubs, what is the role of the volunteer organization? It still typically touches the vast majority of our youngest soccer players.
How do medium-sized select club fit into this new future? Many are small businesses that have some professional and some volunteer staff. For better and for worse, these clubs have contributed to the development of players and to the promotion of the sport.
Should they be feeder clubs to larger premier organizations who themselves are feeders to the development academies? Should this be clearly defined? Should professional clubs compensate youth clubs if they sign their player?
I don’t know the ultimate answer to many of these questions. But the new mandates give the federation this special moment to create a broader dialog with a larger swath of the soccer community.
The focus seems to be steered to the 1% of players in this country.
But now I believe it’s time for the federation to consider redirecting its focus and some resources to where it is needed most – to the 99% of youth soccer players.
To be sure, many of these players will never be good enough to play at the highest levels such as the national team. Equally true is that the development academies serve a necessary role. They have created programming that puts top players together to compete at the highest level and accelerate their development. We need that.
But we also need to pay more attention to clubs that represent the vast middle — because they need help. If not, we are in danger of creating gated soccer communities that shut out many very talented young players for financial, geographical, social and development reasons.
We need the federation to help sort this out beyond issuing mandates for small-sided soccer – even though that’s a good first step. Let’s better define the roles of all clubs so that everyone knows their place and everyone contributes to the cause.
If we truly want to become a soccer nation we need the bottom pushing the top.
What does that mean in practical terms? The federation could begin by setting up regional meetings with local clubs to discuss all of these mandated changes under the new Player Development Initiative. USSF could listen to the logistical challenges these clubs face. USSF could engage in dialog with local clubs, understand their challenges, and help them define their role as their futures change. USSF could provide some free coaching demonstrations as part of the overall effort to improve club technical standards.
They could offer grants for equipment, or make available roving consultants to help establish common standards for small-sided play. In short, they could inspire bigger participation from these clubs by just showing them a little love.
But ultimately, the federation needs to create a clear vision for all youth soccer clubs – a vision that defines roles and a vision that offers more than one path to the top. The United States is too vast and too diverse to think that one road, one system, one league, will deliver professional caliber players. Our diversity should be embraced, divergent paths should be urged, open competition should sit at the foundation of what we do as it does in the youth development programs of countries such as Germany.
It means the federation should create a more even playing field for the clubs qualified to play against DA teams. More recognition and support should be given to clubs like the Fullerton Rangers that are producing top-flight players outside of the gated community.
We can’t afford to have the bottom half fall further behind. I believe the federation has more at stake bringing up the bottom than it does in maintaining the top. We need the bottom half of the pyramid to be stronger. We need these clubs to get better. We need several different pathways to the professional and national team level.
In short, open the gate a little bit. It’s what made us strong as a country and it is what will make as even stronger as a soccer nation.
For more than 20 years before becoming immersed in running a 20,000 player soccer league, Stanley was involved in a different kind of sport —– the winners and losers of global business. All the while he was harboring a secret desire to write about the sport he has played, coached and watched since childhood when the only soccer on TV could be found on Sunday mornings on PBS — — “Toby Charles Soccer Made in Germany.”‘ To say it was a near religious experience is putting it mildly.
Meanwhile, Stanley climbed the ranks of journalism, covering business for The Chicago Tribune, The Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Times and Business Week Magazine, where he was named a 2004 finalist for National Magazine and Gerald Loeb awards.
Stanley grew up in the Seattle area, graduated from Western Washington University with a bachelor’s and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism. Among his proudest soccer and journalism moments was being the first Business Week writer to publish a business story about soccer in the magazine’s then 77-year history: “Can Britain’s No. 1 Soccer Club Score in America? Hugely Profitable Manchester United wants to crack the U.S. market.”
His other Kodak moment: playing soccer for a small village in the south of France where the wine was better than the team. Now, Stanley joins GoalNation as Editor-at-Large and will write a regular Opinion column.