Inside Minnesota Soccer asks: What is US Club Soccer and will it change the face of youth soccer as we know it?
I have to be honest, I didn’t know much about US Club Soccer until Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA) and the National Sports Center (NSC) entered into their highly publicized feud over schedules for Schwan’s USA Cup held in July. As documented in past stories on Inside Minnesota Soccer, MYSA seemed to stop communicating with NSC. NSC, which is overseen by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, then allowed US Club Soccer to sanction Schwan’s USA Cup and all 2009 tournaments hosted by NSC. MYSA had sanctioned the tournaments for the previous 24 years.
With all of this US Club Soccer talk, I began wondering what the organization is and why it was started. US Club Soccer was happy to share their story with me. They put me in touch with Bill Sage, Executive Director and CEO of US Club Soccer. Sage was Chief Administrative Officer of the United States Soccer Federation. From that position, he oversaw eight Federation departments, including membership services, coaching education, international games, legal, finance and referees. Prior to the USSF, Sage spent five years as Executive Vice President of Major League Soccer, where he was responsible for all league operations. In other words, Sage has been around the block a few times in regard to US Soccer, it’s laws and hierarchy. The man understands the landscape of soccer in the US as well as anyone.
I sympathize with people not associated with youth soccer. They love the game but their eyes often roll up into their heads when they hear the maze of soccer organizations, leagues and their parent organizations with acronyms like: USSF, USYSA, AYSO, USOC, ODP, MYSA. etc. I coached for a good many years and never did learn all the nuances of youth and club soccer organizations. To say it’s confusing is an understatement and perhaps one of the reasons we often get mired down in the bureaucracy of youth soccer instead of putting the players’ development first and foremost.
Bill Sage understands this and addressed the political issues in youth soccer when he spoke to me.
“I think it’s too bad that soccer in this country has become so political and that soccer organizations, -the grownups- lose sight of the importance of this being a game,” said Sage. “We need to allow youth soccer players access to all sorts of opportunities and not throw up a bunch of roadblocks to limit those opportunities and we, (US Club Soccer) don’t agree with that. Hopefully we can move forward and keep the kids’ best interest at heart.”
There’s a reason the word “Club” is in the title of US Club Soccer. They truly believe the club and not the organization is the key to the success and development of a player and in recognizing that, do everything they can to make the club’s job as easy as possible to accomplish the goal of allowing youth soccer players to achieve their maximum potential.
US Club Soccer addresses these very issues in their purpose statement: We have spent too much time governing competitive soccer rather than encouraging its growth. The business of the day-to-day development of top youth players rests with the competitive soccer club. A business-friendly environment must be created to develop programs and services which assist the competitive club and player, provide a minimum of rules and regulations to assure basic fairness, and allow clubs the flexibility to build programs that meet their needs. For example, in all US Club Soccer sanctioned competitions, players will be allowed to “play up” in age if their club so chooses, and travel permissions will not be required to attend events in other states.
So first off, let’s try to demystify the hierarchy of youth soccer in this country, as it’s different from other parts of the world where the professional club is king and provides youth soccer academies and reserve teams where players are developed under the wing of the club. Because we don’t have the history and infrastructure here in the US, we’ve developed a different model. Sage explained that because there is a World Cup every 4 years, FIFA came to be and with that a national organization was formed for each country. The United States Soccer Federation is our umbrella organization here in the US. He also explained that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) also has a role to play and that USSF must fall under the USOC with something called the Amateur Sports Act. Because soccer is an Olympic sport, the USOC is mandated with the purpose of developing athletes to compete in the sport for the US.
Sage stated, “The original focus of US Soccer was not soccer development. Over time, state associations developed and US Youth Soccer developed as an umbrella organization overseeing the state associations. In the USSF bylaws there’s a provision for a state youth and state adult organization for each state in the US.” He further explained, “These organizations grew on their own and that’s all there really was. Because of the language in the USSF bylaws, primarily because of federal law and USOC rules, the USSF would also have to be open to other member affiliates as well.”
AYSO was the first organization to test those waters, being admitted in the mid 90’s as a National Association of the United States Soccer Federation. US Club Soccer followed in 2001 and was also recognized as a National Association. Although the two organizations are very different, each has their place as Sage explained, “AYSO has a motto which is, “Everybody Plays,” which is great but very much recreation oriented. We wanted to foster the development of the competitive club soccer in the United States.”
Sage and US Club Soccer have strong feelings about putting clubs first and the power that state organizations have over clubs and therefore the players.
“There’s been a huge shift in the structure of how soccer is organized in this country. While the state associations will continue to exist there’s now a club model where the better players participate,” explained Sage. He said the club model is now embracing recreational soccer and adult soccer as well. “There’s a market for adult soccer at clubs. So theoretically, you could play within the same club from the time you’re 4 years old until you’re 40 or older. That’s going to take a long time to emerge but that’s really what’s happening.“
Sage says developing US Club Soccer has not necessarily been an easy job because of the power hold of state associations. “State associations historically have a monopoly and I think anybody who has a monopoly doesn’t want to lose it,” explained Sage. “We’ve had a lot of battles and issues with the state associations as have many clubs. The underlying premise of the USSF and the USOC is that a player should be able to play to their highest ability and they should be able to play where they want and when they want and all this regulation doesn’t belong in sport. It’s counterproductive and counter intuitive in terms of what soccer really ought to be as a sport in this country.”
Sage emphasized that US Club soccer does have rules concerning membership, sanctioning programs and the safety of its players. He explained, “We recognize that soccer is very different in different parts of the country. In southern California you can run a 12-month program and you clearly can’t do that in Minnesota. Inversely, indoor soccer has a different place in Minnesota that it does in Texas. So there are a lot of local variances that need to be taken into consideration. We feel we need to lower the decision-making process to the people that are closest to the players and their consumers rather than have state-run organizations making those decisions and that is the healthiest thing for the game as a whole.“
US Club Soccer claims that they are committed to minimizing the red tape and paperwork often associated with youth soccer associations. Their website states that rostering rules are designed to provide clubs with maximum flexibility in player development by allowing players to move freely between the club’s teams. It also states that custom team rosters can be created for special events and unlike youth soccer associations, no signatures or other approvals are required to make these moves.
“The thought that somebody needs to get permission from a state administrator to go from Minnesota to Wisconsin is crazy. There’s no rationale for that at all!
I asked Sage about these claims and what specifically US Club Soccer could do for the high level player in order to help their game over what a state association could do for a player. He said that US Club Soccer players don’t have travel permissions. “The thought that somebody needs to get permission from a state administrator to go from Minnesota to Wisconsin is crazy,” exclaimed Sage. “There’s no rationale for that at all! Likewise, if a 14-year-old has a lot of talent and is capable of playing a game every once in a while with some 15-year-old kids there shouldn’t be restrictions other than physical issues that prohibits a player from playing at their highest potential. You shouldn’t have to have the same roster all the time and likewise you should be able to move an A team player to the B team and move players around to give them the best experience possible to fulfill their competitive abilities.”
Sage continued to explain the US Club advantage. “There are also a lot of other rules and restrictions concerning sanctioning tournaments and what people have to do to play in the State Cup,” stated Sage. “I think everybody feels that there are too many games that youth soccer players are involved with and if you look at the demographics there’s a significant drop off in soccer registration at the age of 14. For some of these players they just burn out because they’ve been playing too much organized soccer. Some chose to do other things or play other sports, but some of them are just beat down by the system. We would rather have them play up to their highest level of potential.”
I asked Sage what he thought youth soccer will look like 10 years from now and what changes we will see. He said, “I think clubs will continue to grow and continue to be the vehicles in which competitive players develop. I also think clubs will start having more components. State associations will always be around and always provide an important service, but more and more of the better players and players in general will gravitate towards the club program. The state association model doesn’t really lend itself to facilitating that same kind of growth.”
Sage concluded by saying, “US Club Soccer feels very good about our reason for being and our rationale for what we’re doing, We know we are going to grow over time and are very committed to the club model.”
US Club Soccer currently has over 2,300 club and league team members. They currently run 9 state cup competitions, a National Cup Competition with regionals, a National Collegiate Showcase, regional leagues and they also sanction tournaments.