American soccer is a funny thing. In most other countries, soccer is the main sport, with very little competition from other sports. Fans are rabid and live and die by the game. Kids are playing in the streets, with dreams of achieving fame and glory on the field. While the game is popular among all social classes, it has traditionally been considered a lower-class sport. 

In the US, soccer has traditionally been a second tier (or even lower) sport, constantly vying for attention within the US, as well as respectability among other countries. Its participants were typically those whose parents wouldn’t let them play football, or were too small for basketball, and tended to be from middle or upper class families.

So when our national teams would play almost any other country, they would always look down upon us. Our team was a group of middle or upper class college graduates who didn’t take the game seriously. This caused our players to play with a chip on their shoulder, trying to earn the respect of those from traditional soccer countries. 

But why is that the case, and how is it evolving?

[Note: we are mainly talking about the boys’/men’s game in the US. Things are a bit different on the women’s side, where we are the dominant team in the world, and we’ll be dissecting that in a future article]

Brief History

Soccer was actually quite a popular sport in the US in the early 20th century, as many immigrants brought their love for the sport to these shores. In fact, the US participated in the first World Cup in 1930 and reached the semifinals. Still our best finish to date.

After this brief flirtation with success, soccer took a back seat to more popular sports like football, baseball, and basketball. These sports were all invented in the USA, and crowded out the non-American sport of soccer.

A few leagues popped up here and there, but nothing stuck until the 1970s. The North American Soccer League (NASL) was a fledgling league, until the likes of Pele were coaxed out of retirement. He was joined by numerous legends of the game (Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Best, Eusebio, and many more) to wind down their careers while enjoying the American lifestyle. The US became a popular semi-retirement spot for former international stars.

While this influx of over the hill stars did boost the profile of the sport in the US (games would often sell out 75K+ stadiums), the business practices of the league were not sustainable, and the league folded in the mid-80s. But the sport caught on at the youth level and still the most popular sport played on the youth level. It was especially popular for girls too. 

The Soccer Mom 

The popularity of organized youth soccer led to the rise of the soccer mom. The soccer mom is an overly-supportive, middle or upper-middle class mom who drives a minivan and hauls her kids around to numerous organized practices, games, and soccer tournaments almost year around. She has orange slices and a post-game snack ready for the team.

For them, soccer is an activity to keep the kids busy, and all of the coaching, travel, and tournaments add up to a big expense to play on competitive teams. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds traditionally didn’t have the chance to compete in high level soccer. 

The soccer mom is a symbol of how the sport was much different in the US compared to the rest of the world. In other countries, kids play on the streets all day (akin to basketball here), often with makeshift soccer balls and rarely supervised or formally coached at a young age. They develop a different set of skills learning the game on the streets rather than in a rigid practice environment. 

Youth Soccer in Other Countries

When it’s time to get serious, pro teams scout local players and invite them to try out. If they have potential, they train these kids for free, making it a very inclusive environment to all social classes. This also creates a cutthroat environment, where you can achieve glory or flame out. This intensifies the competition as the kids get older.  

Soccer is constantly on TV in these countries, giving the kids numerous idols to emulate. Until recently in the US, this was not the case. Foreign games were available to watch on the weekends in the early 2000s, but there were almost no American players involved that we could look up to. 

Which all affects the culture of the game here. It’s traditionally been a little more tepid in the US. Here we have what is called a pay to play system (which has recently been criticized by the president of FIFA), because there were traditionally no clubs to develop professional players (either to generate revenue through league play or to sell to other clubs).

Pay to Play

Pretty much every club team requires families to pay to participate. Sometimes there are exceptions, but you hardly hear about them. And if you want to play on a competitive club team, that cost is easily at least a few thousand dollars per year, not including travel, lodging, equipment, etc…

This creates an environment that cuts off a significant portion of the population from accessing elite development opportunities. This has kept numerous talented underprivileged players and those living in more rural areas from reaching their potential. There are exceptions (Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, DeMarcus Beasley, and a few others), but how many of those have we missed because the culture of our game caters to certain socio-economic classes?

Most other countries do not have this barrier. Why? Simple economics. They have a financial incentive to cast the widest net possible for talent. The more good players they bring in, the better players they produce, and the more money they can make by featuring these players in their professional teams, or by selling these players after developing them. 

As we will discuss later, MLS academies developing players is a big key to changing this dynamic of our soccer culture.

College Soccer – The End Goal?

Given this pay to play demographic, a college scholarship often signaled the end goal of a successful youth soccer career. Both parents and players were happy if they ended up with a college scholarship. Kind of like lacrosse today (although there is a pro league for that sport, it doesn’t get much coverage). 

Up until 1990, our national team was essentially a college all-star team, with a couple of older players who managed to catch on professionally somewhere (definitely the exception for American players in those days). 

World Cup qualification was usually a distant dream for our teams in the 70s and 80s. But that was never a realistic goal for those aspiring to play the game in the US. We had to catch up a lot in the 90s to change this mentality, and we patched together a system of club soccer, Olympic Develop Programs (ODP), college soccer, and dual-national recruits to put together a national team that could qualify for the World Cup consistently.

We did alright and managed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, before hosting the event in 1994 and launching the MLS in 1996. These mini-successes were a huge turning point for US soccer, but the system was well behind traditional powerhouses.

The progression of player development was not an ideal environment to create a competitive national team. College soccer is a great outcome for most soccer players (myself included) and can produce good professionals (i.e. Claudio Reyna, Dempsey, Friedel, Keller, and more), but a successful national team needs a more direct pipeline to the professional game.

The Evolution – MLS Academies

This is the big key, in addition to players playing more pickup or unorganized soccer on their own during their early years. 

MLS can make money selling players to other leagues. Eventually the league would like to keep the best players and improve competitiveness at home, but the economic incentive to develop and sell players for millions of dollars gets the wheels turning today

Clubs invest in facilities, scouting, and coaching for younger players. Talented younger players see a legit path to a lucrative professional career, so they take their own development more seriously. Players get the opportunity to prove themselves at a legit professional level at a young age, the quality of play gets better, and more fans become interested in the league. 

MLS Academy players are getting hype on YouTube

Once the pressure cooker heats up, in terms of fan intensity in the MLS and competitiveness to make the grade professionally, we should see an improvement in the overall quality of players, which should create a better national team. 

What’s Next?

We’re already seeing this system starting to bear fruit. MLS attendance is at an all-time high and is a top 10 league for average attendance. Players are making the jump to top leagues with 7 figure plus transfer fees. We have numerous players making an impact in top level leagues in Europe. 

We still have a ways to go. We don’t have a truly world class, game changing player who would walk into any team’s starting 11 (Pulisic is still a level below this, in my opinion). While our player pool is as deep with quality as it has ever been, we are definitely thin at some positions (even at goalkeeper, which has traditionally been a position of strength for us, even in the darker days). The MLS is still viewed as a retirement league, and many of the salary cap restrictions keep teams from building rosters to compete in continental and international competitions (important for improving the leagues perception on a global scale). 

The next 10 years should be interesting. The Messi effect, coupled with the Copa America and World Cup on home soil in the next 2 years, should see an explosion of interest in the game. Hopefully this leads to more viewership, TV money, investment, and ultimately a deeper and more inclusive soccer culture. All of these factors could propel the US to a world power in the game. At least that’s the optimistic viewpoint. 

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