This “privatization” of youth soccer may be justifiable, but it is ultimately ‘detrimental’ and ‘suicidal’ for the American game.

My name is Keith Scarlett. I was born and raised in the state of Indiana and I am currently in Australia where I have taken the next step in my soccer-coaching career. Since I’ve been down here, and even more so after I begin to publish my weekly blog, I’m continuously asked what it’s like, how it’s different, etc…both in general and also pertaining to soccer.  While I won’t answer all of those questions today (save some for a future blog), I will discuss some of my experiences from my short time down here.

     When I first took this position my thought process was quite simple and streamlined: “I had coached at basically almost every-level in the States and have had success. This is an opportunity to learn, grow and develop as both a person and a coach and in a way that I wouldn’t be able to if I stayed and accepted a position in the States.” I should start my own 1-800-call-a-psychic company in that I was so prophetic with that thought…I’d make millions!  That thought has not only come-true in less than a two-month span, but also even more so than I could have imagined.

     My guess is that coaching this game in America; a nation where it’s not the prevalent sport to coach, combined with my many years in the “trenches” - as I now call them – of youth and high-school soccer, my perspective of the next-level was a bit skewed.  Now, don't mistake what I am saying. I'm quite confident in knowing what to look for in top-shelf talent…how to identify players, evaluate them, develop them, etc…I am confident in my abilities relating to this area, as well as my knowledge of the game – but, until I came here the reality didn't sink-in that I could NOT miss anything in the identification and evaluation process, because doing so would inhibit us from being as strong as possible. The recognition of that very important fact quickly began to re-focus my perspective and reflect upon my view of this game.

     I have already learned one-thing; are you ready for this…you may not like it…but, here it goes anyway…too much money at the youth-level plays a big part in how soccer continues to fly under the radar of American sports fans and foreign programs. This “privatization” of youth soccer may be justifiable, but I am quickly learning (primarily by observing the structure of the youth programs here and seeing the talent coming-up the pipeline) that it is ultimately ‘detrimental’ and I’ll even make the claim that it is also ‘suicidal’ for the American game in the long run.

     I understand that coaches need to make money and for some it is their livelihood.  I was, and still am, one of those coaches. However, when it comes at the expense of a young player not being able to play, develop, etc...because they can’t afford the fees in order to pay the coach and run the facilities, in actuality it does more than just stop a kid from playing; it also adds another crushing piece to the development of a true playing personality for the game in America as a whole. This is something we just don’t have in the United States, a playing personality! When you think of American Soccer, what comes to mind?

     ...I’m waiting?

     ...hello?

     ...anyone there?

     ...that’s OK, don’t worry about it, because I don’t have an answer to that question either. However, when you think of other nations, what pops into your head?  Let’s take a little quiz and test this, shall we?

     Ok, I’ll name a nation and you tell me the type of style that comes to mind...are you game?

     Good. Let's begin.

1.)   England: physical and direct

2.)   Brazil: individual brilliance

3.)   Spain: pure possession

4.)   Mexico: grit and determination

5.)   France: sophisticated combination of direct and in-direct play

6.)   Italy: Stout defensively

7.)   Cameroon: athletic, fast and physical

8.)   United States: …..............................?!?!?!!?

     So, what’s the answer, you may be asking? Well, I look no further than the structure of the youth system in Australia; specifically Western Australia. Here’s a run-down of how it works here.  PLEASE NOTE: I am only using the structure in Western Australia and only speaking on what I know. I have only been down here a little under two months and there are pieces to this puzzle that I either have yet to learn or am still too naive to properly relay. Never the less, I will be able to provide you with enough anecdotal evidence to back my statements.  Also, I am not talking about the involvement of collegiate soccer in either Australia or the United States. The collegiate game has a whole different interface with the system.

     Before I go any further, I should be point out that the professional franchises do have Youth Academy Programs in-place (similar to the MLS clubs) and these Academy teams are a separate entity and are not part of the discussion below.  They participate in a National League and travel across the country like their professional comrades. These are the only youth/non-professional teams in Australia that travel across the country on a frequent basis, as most teams do not even travel outside of the geographic area of their respective State Federations. Traveling across Australia is not much different than traveling across the United States; yet this type of travel is basically restricted to the Academy Teams – the ‘best-of-the-best’ - whom are subsidized by their respective pro franchises – eliminating/reducing the cost to the player and thus taking-away the option to “privatize,” even though the franchises are ‘for-profit’ organizations.

     You have the FFA (Football Federation Australia), which is broken down into 9 different state federations that have their own respective governing bodies. “Football West” is the State Federation for Western Australia, which includes the metropolitan area of Perth. Let's use the structure of Football West, because that is where I am located and what I am most familiar with. In what would be called a “youth-club” structure in America, there are 21 separate flights for both males and females. Within each flight there are numerous Divisions (ranging from 5-32). For the most part, all of the teams in these Divisions are evenly distributed and use a relegation/promotion system. The only exceptions to the relegation/promotion rules are that a team cannot be relegated or promoted more than two-years of age up in either direction an adult team cannot drop down into a youth bracket nor can a youth team be promoted into an adult bracket. Otherwise, teams play it out on the field. This structure in and of itself demands nothing short of player development and that is precisely what it gets.  This current structure is still young in comparison and it is the younger players that I am seeing with such impressive composure, flair, creativity and finesse (playing personality?) on the ball. Australia will definitely be stepping forward as these young kids continue to move-up through the ranks.

     Let’s take a look at the youth boy’s first. There are six different age groups from U12-U18. Each age group has sub-divisions within itself ranging from five for the U-18’s to fourteen for the U-12s. When added-up there are exactly 58 different Youth Boy Divisions, each with 6 teams totaling 348 different options for youth boys.  The same type of structure and similar types of numbers exist for the Youth Girls and the Small-Sided Football League (called ‘Optus’). The youth teams in these groupings are quite comparable to teams that play in the respective local, State and Regional leagues in the United States. Some of these teams, obviously, are not able to compete even at these levels, which is fine and occurs everywhere.

     Now let’s take a look at the Advanced Teams (comparable to the teams in the ECNL, National League, etc...in the United States). Since we broke down the boy's side first, let’s peek into the Women’s side this time. There are three levels for the ‘elite’ women: “Night-Series” (top), Premier State League (2nd) and Division One State League (3rd) .  Underneath the banners of these three flights are three additional levels: First-Team, Reserves and the 18’s. There are anywhere from 5-32 teams in each of these lower-level groupings. The same applies on the ‘Advanced’ side for the men.

     You see, here the clubs don’t really have fees.  They are almost all "not-for-profit” and even if they have fees, they are minimal.  What the elimination of the money does, combined with the structure allowing for so many teams to play, is to purely promote an atmosphere where the players develop themselves.  These kids, while playing for a team and trying to win and be promoted; are still just playing the game like they would if they gathered together on a Saturday afternoon for a kick-around in the park.  It just happens they are wearing uniforms, have coaches and officials. When you have so many different options available to play and there are so many roster spots available, there ends up being a place for everyone. A place for the kid who wants to develop and seeks out the best players to play with and the best competition; to a place for the kid whom just wants to play for fun and enjoys his time on a team that becomes relegated to the point they can’t be relegated anymore. There are coaches; don’t get me wrong, and many are very good.  However, they are not paid by the system, but rather paid by parents who make the choice to pay a coach either because they feel the coach deserves or maybe their child is on a team that is developing quickly and a quality coach will help them continue that development.  Basically, teams find the coaches and then make the decision whether to pay them - as opposed to how the club system is structured in America – where the clubs find the coaches, pay them and then force the teams to accept it.

     Obviously, in this type of system you are going to have coaches who aren’t qualified; but again I turn to the structure of the system and how it doesn’t support unqualified coaches having a detrimental effect on a player’s development. Here’s why. These kids are play for the pure fun of it; like it’s a play-date in the park.  There is no pressure from their parents because they’re NOT paying exorbitant fees. There’s no pressure on the player, besides what they put on themselves, because they don’t have an image or club-name to live up to and their parents AREN’T paying out the wazoo for them to play.  There is no pressure on the coach because they are more-than-likely NOT getting paid...do I need to go on?  Do we see the common theme of what is NOT present in this environment? So, what that leaves is the opportunity for the player to just play, to just play with the ball and develop at their own rate.

     The best comparison that comes to mind is pick-up basketball. Playing in the driveways and playgrounds can really develop a young player.  Some of the best basketball players of all-time developed the basis for their game playing pick-up basketball. They had pressure from parents, no one was paying any money for them to play. It was just fun. Of course, eventually coaching was needed, but that's where an Academy level can come into play. 

     The kids who keep calling, “NEXT” are the ones developing at a tremendous rate! - and, yes I am referring to the age-old basketball adage of calling “Next” when you wanted to get on the court. For those unfamiliar; in pick-up basketball, if you wanted to play you had to call-out “next.” This let everyone know that you had the next-game. When it was your turn to play you had to pick a team and play the winners of the game that just finished.  The interesting thing about calling “next,” is that if you don’t call it first, then the next game goes to the person who did. Let’s say you called "next," but found-out that four other people had already called it...guess how many games you had to wait to play? That’s right; 4! The only other-way to play before it was your ‘next,’ was to win (the team that wins stays on the court until they are beaten) or to be good enough that someone who has a ‘next’ before you picks you to play with them. However, only the good players get into a game this way.

     Trust me; from personal experience spending many long, hot, summer days leaning-up against a chain-link fence waiting for my turn to play, you DID NOT want to lose...and if you did...you wanted to be good enough and increase your chances of getting picked-up.  There were times when players would wait for hours just to play one game, lose the game and then return to the same cycle again.  No one wants to experience that, so you always got everyone’s best all the time. This made you faster, quicker, smarter, stronger, better with ball, etc...all from just playing the game without any real structure and allowing the element of competition combined with simply wanting to play, push you to higher levels.

     This is what I see happening here.  No, they don’t have to wait for hours on end to play, but if they want to win, they must get better.  Once they get better they will earn the right to play against better competition and play with better teammates; which will in turn make them better. Those players whom want to compete at a higher-level are left with only one choice to do so: get better (i.e, get picked-up or stay on the court). If a player loses the desire to improve, they will eventually fall behind and end-up playing for recreation or not playing at all.  No one wants a child to make the choice to not play, but this choice is the key element in what I’m calling, “Pure Player Development [PPD]” – the PLAYER chooses how good they want to be?  Not their parents whom are paying fees…not their coaches…just them…they make the choice to play and improve. In making this choice a player has called “Next,” and in-order to keep playing at a high-level they know they must keep developing or they’ll fall behind. In America, we need to close-up the pocket books and give our youth the opportunity to call “Next." We need to allow them the opportunity to do what it takes to stay on the court. We need to leave our youth alone to learn, adapt and develop their own “playing personality.” A camp, clinic or individual coach can never replace what basketball players learn in these pick-up games.  This is a statement of fact! I opened-up this blog-post disclosing that I was born and bred in Indiana; the basketball capital of the world and I grew-up playing basketball many hours a day in pick-up games. So, I’m speaking from pure, fact-based experience. 

     All of the skills that allowed me to play basketball at a higher-level (i.e., High-School Varsity and small college) I learned, developed and mastered in those pick-up games.  The same applies for soccer…if we let the kids call “Next,” we will be amazed at what they can do. I’m seeing that first-hand right now!

SIDE-NOTE: There are clubs, teams and programs that are "privatized.” They are far-and-few between and they typically can only survive if they have the better players and coaches. In addition, their results must be VERY GOOD! Think about it for a second; why would someone pay to play for Team A when they could play for Team B without cost and achieve comparable (and sometimes more) development and results?

     Now, with basketball, I eventually developed to a level where my skills from the pick-up games diminished in their effectiveness as I faced better competition.  At this point, it was time for me to join a more organized team with a coach whom was qualified enough to refine my skills. However, it wasn’t until I was GOOD ENOUGH to keep winning and staying on the court for this to happen. Regardless of the any camps I attended, AAU teams I played for or whom my coaches were; all of that added together would never replace what I learned by calling "Next!" 

     I have recently had the opportunity to observe the organization and structure of the system here in full-force as they are rounding out of the end of their season. This has been an interesting experience because it has allowed me to experience first-hand the positives and negatives that this type of ‘free-flowing,’ ‘player-oriented’ and ‘non-privatized’ (ahhhhh…man, how I love typing those words) structure offers. I have to say the athleticism of the players and their attitude and willingness to work has been outstanding.  The way they [Football West] organize things and their philosophy when it comes to developing successful players is a bright light for me (all without the direct influence of the FFA). Not only do I think the potential growth rate is exponential but the blueprint and influx of young athletes are all accessible. I could see a promising future with this structure and I don’t think Australia is the only place that can benefit (hint, hint). 

     So, what does this mean for the culture of club-soccer in America?

     Well, bluntly put: It needs…

     ...no, that’s the wrong word…

     ...it MUST change!

     Regardless of how hard the USSF tries, they can only play with the hand they are dealt. Even Klingsmann; in all of his coaching and motivational prowess, is still limited in what he can achieve because of what the current structure of youth soccer in America offers him. Isn’t that ridiculous?  Doesn’t that sound like…

     ...uhhhh…

     ...stupid?

     If you have read this far, then I’m sure you’re prepared to read even further; however, the answer I will give to this question is controversial.  I feel confident that I have laid down a solid foundation of my thought process and that I can answer this question more precisely and constrained.

Step 1):  DON’T SHOW ME THE MONEY! 

     We must eliminate the cost for kids to play. Ideally, that means all costs at the youth-level until the player is good-enough to merit the coaching and introduction of tactics, etc… This is where a club or a paid-trainer would come into play.

     Now, before you get your tightie-whities knotted up in a bunch because I just took a shot at how you put food on your family’s table or supplement your income; recognize that when I was coaching I was in that same-boat and needed that money to survive. I was part of the exact problem I am now discussing. It wasn’t until I was away from the system that I had grown accustomed to and had accepted as truth that I recognized the disservice and inhibition I was helping to put on the betterment American game.

     Clubs do not need to be “for profit.”  There are many examples of clubs that are “not-for-profit” across the country that are able to pay their bills (many times even including coaches’ salaries).  Where are these clubs? Why don’t they appear in the top tournaments?  They do exist and they do fairly well, in their own right; but what I have observed is that some teams are limited in what they accomplish because “better” and “more athletic” players are paying to play for the bigger and more prestigious clubs.  That will obviously limit the available player-pool. For example; there is a mid-sized club located in the Midwest that does fairly-well for themselves, especially on the boy’s side.  They are established enough, in fact, that they are a youth affiliate of an MLS franchise. They are “not-for-profit.” They do pay their coaches, but they only charge the players the fees needed to operate.  With the right underwriting, this club could operate without charging fees; never the less, they are still the least expensive club within a metropolitan area of approximately 3 million people.

     So, American Soccer Community…if you really want to solve the issues in American Soccer Development then the first-thing we need to do is “put away the check-books.”

     Over $1,000.00 a season for my 12-year old daughter to play is ridiculous…unless she is that good and shows that much potential to merit the training that come with that cost. I love soccer, I know the game inside and out, I know how the system works and I love my daughter...but, if I had $1,000.00 to spend…with what I know now – I wouldn’t pay it!

     Why are we making people pay this? 

     Why are we putting pre-teens in a decision to either play with their friends and enjoy the game or move to the “expensive” club and play with strangers? 

     Are these fee’s necessary? 

     I used to think so…but now, based on what my experiences, I don’t think so!

Step 2):  Coaches: STAY OUT OF THE WAY!

    This is very simple.  If you’re not coaching elite-level players, then step-back, give your young players a single point of emphasis and just let them play!

     That’s right…I said it…make sure they have the right equipment…mark off whatever sized grid you want to use that session…have one AND only one coaching point and be sure you get it across efficiently so they understand it...then roll out a ball, split them into teams and watch them grow.

     We should only “coach” around that particular coaching-point and not go overboard.  One coaching-point a session is more than enough for even older-age groups.

     Referring to the pick-up basketball analogy again...give them two hoops, a court, boundaries, a ball and a direction (re: win or sit and watch) then sit-back and enjoy the show.

     The level in technical proficiency, creativity, flair, confidence on the ball, pure competitive passion and an unwavering will to win is what I see in Australia. The difference is incredible in comparison to what I experienced in the USA. This keeps me soaking up every last drop of knowledge that I can and yearning to learn from the best. One of the Women’s Professional rosters have three players that have played for Australian Universities whom all played on the same team that recently toured the USA. They went undefeated against a university on the west coast and twice  against US Youth National Programs. In reality, the Australian Universities' team is just a throw-together team of young club players. Locally, we have already seen six players club-players sign on to play professionally and one player whom was called up to represent the Women’s National Team (The Matildas).

    An example that is closer to home comes in an interesting twist of environments. A friend of mine who has coaching experience at the collegiate level was telling me about the High-School Boy’s  Team that he coached. He also coaches a high-school aged Boy’s Club Team for one of the top clubs in the area.  The high-school team he coaches is located in a small rural community mostly populated by individuals of Latino descent.  Many of them ended-up in the area as generations of their families traveled through the area as migrant workers. These boys are technically brilliant and with a ball at their feet are magnificent to watch.  The "magic” wasn’t developed on a training pitch or from the brilliance of my friend as a coach, but rather their unadulterated love for the game and their desire to play wherever and whenever they can.

     My friend’s club-team is no slouch.  They are some of the more talented high-school aged players in a large metropolitan area. However, my friend will be very quick to point-out that if his High-School team were to play his Club-Team that his club-team would get destroyed. 

     What? 

     Does he really think that?

     Am I making it up?  No, I am not. He will even go on to assume that it would be so one-sided his club-team would hardly ever have the ball, because of the technical proficiency of his high-school players. These high-school kids just love to play and possess an innocent like flair that allows them to do whatever they feel like.  In comparison to his club-side, it is the exact opposite. They are like puppets on a string and need to be told when to run, where to run, how to run, etc... They have been molded and trained through the American Club System that they are waiting to be moved around like chess-pieces. 

     The really interesting part of this story is when my friend asked his high-school players if any of them played any sort of club-ball.  They answer was “no!”  When he asked them why, they responded two-fold; “It’s too expensive and we already play everyday on our own and against our fathers and uncles.”

     Coming-up through a system that requires and demands MONEY (club-team) vs. never having the chance to play with the other team because of the cost - NO MONEY (high-school team)...and the winner is: ?

Step 3):  FORGET THE FREQUENT FLIER MILES

     Western Australia has 90% of its population in the southwest part of the state. Yet, they are able to field more than 3,000 different teams from U-10 up to adults.  This is occurring in an area with a similar population to Cincinnati, Ohio; Portland, Oregon or Pittsburgh, PA.  All of these teams are able to get highly competitive matches in – did I say yet that they only play one-match a week? - anyway...they get these matches in without ever having to leave the state; most of them without ever having to leave the Perth metropolitan area. Traveling by airplane across Australia is not difficult, but they don’t.

     Why?  Because they don't have the need to. 

     The FFA has “Regionalized” things through the use of “State Associations.” Each individual State Association is allowed to discern how it can best function to meet the needs of the players, the game and the FFA, as a whole.  For the most part, the FFA keeps there fingers out of the pots and allows the cooks to stir the stew.

     Why then; do clubs in the US feel this need to travel to Richmond, VA; San Antonio, TX; Las Vegas, NV; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Orlando, FL, Chicago, IL; New York City; Boise, ID; Phoenix, AZ, etc...hopefully you get the idea?!?!?!...just to play matches. Why can’t things also be REGIONALIZED? This would keep the kids closer to home and keep money in parents' pocket books. Once upon a time, the Midwest Regional League (Region II), National League (Region I), California Premier League (Region IV), etc...were the top leagues and included the top teams. The travel was nominal and the competition was of quality. Then...tadadadadum...someone came-up with the 'brilliant' decision to change something that in hindsight, probably wasn't broken.

SIDE NOTE: I have some good friends whom are involved in the very process I question above and below; as coaches and even directors and administrators. I’m taking a risk by publishing this; however, I believe it needs to be said.

     Why do you hear a “...but...” coming?...because there is one!

     BUT, someone had to make more money and reach for a ‘supposed’ higher-level of competition.

     Unfortunately, I have to throw someone under the bus right now.  So, because I have worked primarily within the girls system, I’ll toss them under the bus.  I think it’s fabulous that there is a large league with many different teams from many different geographical areas spread nationwide.  That’s offers consistent competition. I applaud it and it's existence. BUT, do we have to bring all of these teams together into centralized locations across the country and back and in between to compete.

     Really?

    What’s the difference in competition for a team who has been accepted into this national league from southern Florida when they play another team, which has also been accepted into the same league from northern Florida?

     Is there a difference if this team plays a team Georgia compared to playing a team from the state of Washington?

     Does playing a team that lives 2,000+ miles away from you change your development? Of course not. So why do it?

     Why put the added pressure on players and coaches to perform because they traveled so far?

     Why have the extra expense involved in travelling? Can that money not be put to better use in the youth system?

     Why take away a child’s soccer innocence by placing such a heavy price on their head?  Whether a player from the southern Florida team ever plays another team outside of the southeast section of the United States has no relevance on whether that player is going to end-up playing professionally or not.  If they are good enough to be on a team that is good enough to be in these types of prestigious leagues, then won't they be able to play the same-level of competition closer to home as they can further away?  They’ll still get cut from a college-team or they’ll still score the game-winning goal in the World Cup Final.

     So, let’s sum this up. STOP THE COSTS, STOP THE COACHING, REGIONALIZE – AND LET THE KIDS JUST PLAY! If this were to occur within the structure of American soccer, then I believe we would develop at a more proficient rate.

     My everyday involvement in the professional football scene is a constant learning experience. Due to my coaching background, I realize my experience may have been hindered quite a bit and I may have done some significant damage to the development of the game in America. However, hunting the best pathway to becoming the most knowledgeable coach I can be has allowed for tremendous growth. At the end of the day I hope my sacrifice will benefit the players and teams I’m involved with in the future. I don’t believe I would have gained the knowledge or expertise of being a successful coach without continually challenging myself in different environments among some of the best soccer cultures. I think in teaching circles they refer to it as “total immersion”.

     Some one just recently asked me to write a blog on the, “...lost art of the dribble...” While this is not the place, there is some relevancy.  A player is only as good as how well they handle the ball.  A team is only as good as how well its players handle the ball. How well you handle the ball (re: dribble) is the basic foundation of this game in its simplest form. We need to ask ourselves, how many players actually know how to dribble?

     Then we need to ask ourselves why?

     Then finally pose the question about what can be done to fix it or at least ensure it doesn’t happen to a future generation?

     The young players I observe coming-up through this system are brilliant on the ball, composed and confident when playing out of pressure and technically sound. I was told recently by one of the coaches at the NTC (“National Training Centre;” the equivalent to our Youth National Camps), that the FFA recently adopted and implemented a philosophy that everyone has bought into.  He summed it best: “…we’ll take losses for the sake of development at U14, because we plan to beat the snot out of you at the National Level.” That is the direction they are heading and by the evidence shown in what is coming-up; they just might be spot-on!

     The football environment here is over flowing with talent and knowledge, which has been hugely beneficial towards my development as a coach. My ultimate goal of this blog-post is not to attack  livelihoods or opinions; but raise points of discussion. However, I am at a point where I am confident in my knowledge, skills and experience to comfortably open my thoughts and expose them for others to read. I feel it’s just a matter of time before the US is on the radar of the right path. Until then I’ll keep my head down, and keep grinding - while down-under.