The Problem With American Youth Soccer
Soccer: A Rising Force in American Sports
Historically, American sporting culture has been dominated by a triumvirate of traditional sports: baseball, basketball, and football. You would be hard-pressed to find a high school in America that doesn't at least attempt to have a basketball program, most have baseball programs, and in my Northeast Tennessee home of the Tri-Cities, high school football teams still draw large crowds.
But over the last decade or so, soccer has exploded in popularity in the states, even making its way down south to regions dominated by the more American variety of football. Part of the increasing popularity is no doubt due to the intrinsic simplicity of the sport. A group of kids can get a solid game of soccer together with a ball and a backyard, or even a street. Kids that would never, because of their physical frames, be able to realistically compete in football or basketball can compete with the tallest, strongest kids on the soccer pitch.
But some of the popularity increase is due to factors less immediately obvious. Concerns over football and its links to long-term brain damage and concussions have dampened enthusiasm for youth football to some degree. The emergence of the MLS and increasing popularity of English, Spanish, and Italian soccer clubs have driven youth participation of soccer to unprecedented levels in the US.
And with typical American enthusiasm, we have taken to our new sport with whole-hearted enthusiasm. So what's the problem?
The Road to Soccer Hell
It's said that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions," and this proverb is disturbingly true for American soccer. Although recreational soccer programs, travel teams, and high school soccer programs are blossoming all over the US, Americans simply don't understand the sport. At all. And because of this lack of knowledge, US soccer is saturated with players, coaches, parents, and even referees that really don't understand the sport.
Even more deleterious is the not-so-subtle fusion of American football and soccer at the youth level. Well-meaning but ignorant coaches of youth soccer teams draw upon their impressive knowledge of football to fill in the cracks of their soccer knowledge. The result is an awkward, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes horrifying "football-i-zation "of soccer.
Simply put, coaches are coaching soccer as if it were football. I've been around recreational soccer for upwards of 15 years and in my time, this trend has only increased. I've seen coaches absolutely screaming in the faces of 8–9-year-old girls, demanding that they perform push-ups because they missed a shot on goal. I've heard cowboy-hat-wearing "coaches" encourage their players to strike the ball with the tips of their toes to shoot better. And of course, any time a team of young players finds themselves overwhelmed by the technical skills of the other team, the coach of the losing team can only fall back on "playing harder".
Soccer isn't meant to be played harder. It has to be played smarter. And coaches in American youth soccer have no idea how to coach the finer points of technical skills. Smooth touches and correct positioning are ignored because the coaches lack the required knowledge to teach them.
The problem with all of this is that it changes soccer into something it's not, a weird coagulation of American football "manliness and testosterone" with a round ball. It leads to an inability to appreciate the game for what it is. And it frustrates the kids and retards their enjoyment of the game.
It's All for the Kids
American soccer was never going to become perfect overnight and grassroots soccer in the US will no doubt retain smears of the horrid sport that is football for decades to come. But while we, as parents and coaches and refs and fans, are enduring this, let's at least let the kids have fun. Because the biggest obstacle to US youth soccer isn't soccer-illiterate coaches wearing cowboy hats and telling their players to tackle the other team and chew gravel... it's the parents.
It's the parents that make it clear to their kids that their performance in a game determines their value as a person. It's the parents who jeer and make fun of their kids on the sidelines to get a laugh from other parents. It's the parents who force their kids to do a sport they don't enjoy so they can live vicariously through them. It's the parents that should "offsides" anytime the other team scores and wouldn't know what offsides was if it introduced itself to them. it's the parents that tell their kids to "throw some elbows" as if Newcastle's Mitrovic hadn't just got a red card for elbowing West Ham's Lanzini.
Parents: You're ruining grassroots soccer in the US. You yell at your kids, you yell at your team, you yell at the ref, you yell at the other team, and some of you even go so low as to say "let's get a touchdown!" You encourage fouls, you discourage fun, and you completely have lost the plot.
The problem with US youth soccer is that it's not for the youth. It's for the mid-life crisis coach in a matching track jacket and sweats that's asking me if the goalkeeper can throw the ball outside the 18-yard box. It's for the mom who's at her third game and doesn't know if the goalkeeper can use his hands or not. It's for the dad who's an armchair athlete that wants his son to throw some elbows and play dirty.
Let's return soccer to the kids. I think they deserve that.
© 2017 Hudson Williams