Followers of U.S. soccer are used to stories of talented youth players failing to make the grade at the professional level. But we rarely ever hear about players who never scratched the surface of their potential because they were never given the opportunity to get out of the starting blocks. Why would we, right? Well, the key to building a more dynamic U.S. player pool may lie in exploring the underbelly of youth soccer. Here’s my take on a piece of U.S. youth soccer based on my experiences.
I grew up in Baltimore City in a neighborhood that was about 95% African-American. No, it wasn’t The Wire, but it wasn’t suburbia either.
Although my neighborhood was always relatively tranquil, the nearby high school that I would have attended was not. The graduation rate was dismal and the school had its share of problems, once suspending 1,200 students in one day. So my parents sacrificed their paychecks and broke out the credit cards.
My parents decided early on that my brother and I needed to participate in something productive. So they signed us up for soccer and lacrosse in Baltimore County. Soccer made sense because my dad played. But I still don’t understand why they signed us up for lacrosse given that my parents were born in a developing country far, far away. I still have a difficult time explaining lacrosse to my relatives.
At five years old, I quickly became obsessed with both sports. Within a year, I was playing up a few age groups. No one in my neighborhood played either soccer or lacrosse. When I left the house in my shinguards or lacrosse pads, without fail, I would have to field questions about where I was going from other kids in the neighborhood who really didn’t get the opportunity to venture out much.
“What the (expletive) is that racket?”
“Um, it’s a lacrosse stick.”
Years later, I made the soccer and lacrosse travel teams for my recreational league, which broadened my sporting radius. I was happy that I made the teams. I started playing year round, outdoor soccer in the fall, indoor in the winter, and then lacrosse in the spring.
Fast forward a few years. In seventh grade, I made the eighth grade soccer team in my private school. I played with a few kids who played something called club soccer. I’d never heard of it. “You mean travel team?” No. Apparently, it was called club soccer. But no matter. I could more than handle myself on the middle school pitches. After practices, I would take the 45 minute bus ride back into the city.
In eighth grade, our soccer team went undefeated, and I have my eighth grade championship jacket to prove it. We were the kings of the newly pubescent on the private school circuit.
I thrived whenever I stepped on a soccer field, but I still had no idea what else I could have been doing, or how else I could have been developing other than dribbling around the two trees in my backyard and practicing one touch passing against a brick wall. Technically, I was sound. I could pass short and long with both feet, shoot with both feet, dribble, and had some speed. Little did I know that other kids were being coached year round by top coaches in club soccer, playing tournaments around the country against top competition, and partaking in this impressive sounding Olympic Development Program (ODP).
With high school soccer on the horizon, I prepared myself by watching as much soccer as possible, playing pick up soccer where I could find it, running daily and dribbling aimlessly in the backyard testing out new moves on inanimate objects. It was clearly time to find somewhere else to play, but I didn’t have the first clue where to go or how my family could pull off the logistics.
The summer before my freshman year was my first experience outside of travel team and middle school soccer. I begged my parents to let me try out for a soccer team that was about to go to Europe. “Suppose you make it? How would you propose we pay for that?” After a few days of negotiations, my parents eventually let me try out, determining that we would go with the “try out and we’ll see what happens” approach.
I made the team, and as usual, my parents sacrificed. A few credit card swipes later, I was on a plane to Europe where I played in several youth tournaments in Holland, Denmark, and Belgium. It was a life changing experience. I still wasn’t very knowledgeable about club soccer in the States, but I was well-versed on total football, Ajax and the Dutch National Team. Holland was my soccer paradise. We played clubs from Africa, South America and Europe. We spent every waking moment playing, talking about soccer, watching soccer, and hanging out with kids from other countries. That was when I started to realize that I needed to play more and at a higher level. It was also there that I realized from coaches’ reactions that I could raise an eyebrow or two from people who played at very high levels. Unfortunately, after the trip, I returned to backyard dribbling. It was rather anticlimactic, but high school soccer was right around the corner.
I made varsity as a freshman and started most games, breaking the freshman scoring record along the way, which shortly afterward, was demolished multiple times by much better players. We had a decent team and I seemed to fit right in. One of our co-captains, who played club soccer and ODP, went off to play a bit at the University of Maryland. I started to connect the dots.
The path to a higher level was becoming clearer. I began to become increasingly aware of what it meant to play club soccer and ODP. However, I was hesitant to ask my parents to join because all of the teams I had heard about were nowhere near where we lived. But eventually, I asked. I desperately wanted to play with one of these clubs that play in tournaments all over the country and enter the State Cup. A few of my high school teammates talked about these things all the time. But in Baltimore City, and especially in my neighborhood, club soccer was like most legislative processes – accessible to some, but invisible to a whole lot of the rest of us.
Again, my parents succumbed to my pressure and decided that they would figure out a way to make things work. I began playing in Columbia, Maryland in the spring of my freshman year with one of my best friends from high school. This was the first time I had ever played spring soccer. I was playing varsity lacrosse at the same time, so my plate was full. High school sports were manageable because there was a school bus that took us everywhere. But Columbia was about a forty-five minute drive from our house in Baltimore City. Getting to practice and games wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for two parents working full-time jobs, but they continued to sacrifice in spite of me being an insufferable teenager. Imagine how difficult this journey would have been for a kid in a car-less single parent household. I was lucky that my parents could figure out a way to make it work.
Club soccer was intimidating. The parents were serious. They traveled everywhere with the team. They were just as vested in the game as their children. The kids had the newest gear. They had also developed intimate relationships with each other because, for the most part, they all lived near each other and had been playing together for years. Stepping into this team dynamic at the age of 16, it’s natural that you won’t immediately feel comfortable, especially when your presence might mean that someone’s kid might not play as much. That’s not a welcome proposition for a parent who has already invested in multiple pairs of expensive cleats, trips to tournaments, and has committed hundreds of hours carpooling for years.
All of these factors took a toll on my confidence. I sometimes found myself making mistakes that I would never make. But that was the learning curve. Top club soccer has a built-in level of pressure that just doesn’t exist in your run-of-the-mill travel team. It was just a shame that my real learning curve started at 16.
During the fall of my sophomore year, I decided to follow my high school friend to ODP tryouts. I got a ride with him and his parents after school to go to tryouts, and then spent the night at his house since that was much easier than having my parents make the long trip after work. The logistics were already a headache and I hadn’t even attended the tryout yet.
There were a lot of similarities between club soccer and my ODP tryout experience. I immediately realized that these kids had been playing together for years. They weren’t just teammates, they were friends. They joked with each other and the coaches like they were old drinking buddies. Many of them had been playing together in club and high school. To say that the ODP environment was intimidating to a kid like me would be an understatement. It reminds me of the Dave Chappelle Sunny D skit. “What the f@*k is juice?” Well that was me. I was happy with the purple stuff because I didn’t know about juice. I had to quickly familiarize myself with this juice product.
For those of you who don’t know how ODP works, here’s a quick primer. At each age group, twenty-five players are selected for the ODP (or state team) pool. Coaches at each age group select the twenty-five players from “open” tryouts each year. The state ODP teams form the basis for regional team selection, which in turn forms the pool for national team selection.
There were countless kids at the ODP tryout I attended if I recall correctly. We were split up into teams and given a jersey. One of the players, who apparently had been in ODP for years, was told to warm us up. I guess he wasn’t really trying out. I quickly surmised that a significant number of the players were effectively already on the team. The whole process began to feel like a formality before the games even began. I wondered whether I was just wasting my time.
What happened at the ODP tryout next is a blur. I think I remember playing relatively well, but I also recall dunking a basketball at the age of 15 for some reason, which clearly never happened. I don’t really recall what happened next. It might have been a letter or a phone call from the ODP coach, but much to my surprise, I made the team. I was surprised considering how entrenched some of the players were in the ODP system. I never expected to realistically even get a look.
It didn’t strike me at the time, but the journey to get in front of top coaches is a journey that too many kids will never be able to make under the current structure. In Maryland at the time, you basically had to live in the Columbia area or the Bethesda/Potomac area to be in the ODP loop, although the base has slightly expanded today. It was in these two areas where you would find the money, the clubs, and the coaches. If you grew up playing soccer in these areas, the likelihood that you were aware of ODP was exponentially higher than if you lived in Baltimore City.
Here’s the access problem in a nutshell. Growing up in certain areas makes it increasingly likely that you will have access to good coaching and solid competition from a young age. Clearly there’s a correlation between access to good coaching/competitive play and the development of a good player. But let’s just assume that you happen to be good, but out of the top club soccer radius. Chances are that you probably won’t know that ODP exists, especially if your parents aren’t savvy soccer hustlers. It’s also likely that you won’t know about or have access to one of the unofficial ODP feeder clubs that increase your chances of at least knowing about ODP. But even if we assume that a player is somehow good enough and knows about ODP, getting to tryouts and practices and games becomes a logistical nightmare since these events typically take place where most of the kids live. Given these obstacles, it’s easy to see why ODP is simply not accessible for many children. And the older you get, the likelihood of a player breaking into the system decreases.
Somehow I navigated the system. But by the time I put the pieces together, I was 16 years old. Nevertheless, ODP was a great experience. We got two weeks off of school to go to England and Wales during my sophomore year. We played the Irish U-17 National Team, toured Old Trafford, went to see Swansea City vs. Cardiff City, and listened to everyone rave about a 19 year old Welsh kid named Ryan Giggs. It was an amazing experience that didn’t even remotely translate to people who lived in my neighborhood who were slightly baffled about what soccer was doing for me.
Thinking back on the ride, soccer has given me way too many great experiences to have any real regrets. Of course I think back and play the “what if” game on occasion. What if I played club soccer at a much younger age? What if I had coaches who were actually trained to develop players? But let’s be realistic, it’s not like I would have been the next big thing. But I always wonder, how many kids fall through the cracks who might have the ability to really play if given the right opportunities to develop? I was just one kid out of one neighborhood who ended up playing ODP for a year before heading off to boarding school and college. I was fortunate. But there are tons of potentially great players out there, many who fall through the cracks simply because they don’t have access to coaching, development opportunities, and teams. They don’t know about ODP, let alone club soccer. They are simply shut out of the process from the outset. And then we have to listen to talking heads and fans wonder why so many of our children take up other sports. Of course there are other reasons at play, but it’s hard to woo a player who doesn’t have any meaningful access to the game.
I’m writing this because I’ve never read a first-hand account like this elsewhere. They might be out there, but I haven’t seen them. But I know that there are stories like this all over the country. So I wonder, where is the attention to these issues in the burgeoning U.S. soccer community? Access to the game isn’t just a cause for the U.S. Soccer Foundation and a handful of non-profits and community organizations. It’s also the job of soccer fans who claim to care about the game in the United States to embrace these issues. It’s the job of fans who complain about how one dimensional the U.S. National Team is at times to understand how we might be able to add talent by looking in new places and cultivating underdeveloped pools of talent. The process can’t start at age 16 or 17 where we pat each other on the back for the fortunate group of kids who somehow find their way through because Sandra Bullock adopted them. It has to start with young kids who percentage-wise will never have the opportunity to see how good they can be. This is simply about consciously expanding access and opportunity.
We started Nutmeg Radio to write about soccer, but also to periodically give a voice to those who could benefit if some of the game’s systemic obstacles (and opportunities) are addressed on a regular basis. Soccer is an amazing game that has allowed me to see, study, and continue learning about the world well after I became too old for youth soccer. Outside of my parents, the game has probably been as instrumental in my development as any other influence. Reaching out into communities in need will offer some of these opportunities to many kids whose sporting interests will inevitably be monopolized by the worlds of American football, basketball, or baseball. Soccer is a powerful tool and it’s time that we all truly start to explore what the game can do for others, and the impact that increased access can ultimately have on the U.S. player pool. There are win-wins for everyone here.