In just about every other place in the world, soccer is a way out for the less privileged. The United States is the notable exception. Here, it's the middle-class kids who are predominant on the national, professional and college levels.
The U.S. is a place where the parents of 12-year-olds are buying their kids $100-plus shoes and self-respecting teams are outfitting their preteen players in top-of-the-line sweats, jerseys and shorts from brand-name suppliers. These are not kids who will learn to juggle with "balls" made out of cloth or from grapefruits picked out of trees. These are kids who will attend expensive elite soccer camps rather than learning to play the game on the streets or in litter-strewn empty lots.
Elsewhere, the best players generally come from a much different socioeconomic background. In Brazil, from the shanty towns known as favelas. In Mexico, Argentina and the rest of South America, from the dirt-poor barrios. In the major European cities, from the lower-working-class neighborhoods where immigrants tend to congregate.
It wasn't too long ago that the top tiers of the top European leagues were virtually lily white. Now, you can see black players in ever-growing numbers to the point that racist behavior by fans has become a major source of embarrassment for UEFA and national officials.
Many of those players are imports, but even more are products of immigrant communities. It's no accident that so many members of the French World Cup championship squad were either immigrants or the sons of immigrants from that nation's former colonies. It's not a coincidence that so many of the top players in Holland and England are black, many of Caribbean descent.
But in the United States, those at the helm of mainstream soccer turn away from the immigrants. Or, a strong case can be made, the immigrants turn to within, bypassing the self-anointed U.S. soccer family and opting to instead play in the unaffiliated "pirate leagues," with the best players becoming the inner-city equivalent of school-yard basketball legends.
This disconnect between the American soccer hierarchy and those who are most passionately involved with the sport is at the heart of what's wrong with the way the United States identifies talent.
The Olympic Development Program is a good idea that has not gone far enough; it is a concept that is designed more to unearth potential college players than to stock professional teams and, by extension, the national squad.
ODP is all about organized youth soccer. To receive exposure, kids have to play with visible traveling clubs that compete in high-profile tournaments. But it costs big money to play on one of the premier clubs.
If your father and/or mother is a doctor, lawyer, businessperson or corporate middle manager, two or three grand a year is no big deal. It's something you do for the kids. Like fitting them with braces or giving them ballet or tennis lessons. Kids who live in American ghettos, barrios or trailer parks are not fitted for braces, do not wear tutus and generally do not hit balls over nets.
The top soccer clubs recruit some of the top players by giving them scholarships. But this irritates the parents who can afford to pay their kids' way. And why shouldn't it? Your child sits while another player, whose fees you are helping subsidize, is on the field.
I can attest to this dichotomy. My son and two other Latino kids of modest means were invited to play with a team based in a well-off neighborhood in northern California seeking to make up the competitive gap against the other premier teams from the area.
The coach -- a very good one, I might add -- took the Solomon approach of figuratively cutting the baby in half. He would bench his three Latino scholarship recruits against the bad teams, relegating them to reserve duties while their dues-paying teammates played. But all three would start against the top teams.
It was a cagey approach on several levels by the coach. Except that even under-12 kids can figure out when they're being exploited. All three returned to their neighborhood team the following season. All three, by the way, ended up playing college soccer at varying levels. The really serious soccer players pursue ODP, designed to identify the top players at the state, regional and national levels. Conceptually, it's a great idea that ultimately falls short of its intended goal because it doesn't go far or deep enough, largely because it also costs big money to participate in those programs.
But this potential pool of talent is diluted because too often many of the youngsters who can really play are excluded from the process because they can't afford to pay.
I served as an ODP state coach in Hawaii for several years and remember leaving a Region IV camp in Boise along with dozens of players who had not been selected to "stay over" -- a nice way of saying they had not made the cut to remain for an additional week of training and matches with the regional pool. Among them were an inordinate number of Latino kids -- some of whom I recognized as among the most skillful in camp.
One of them, from San Jose, was carrying a golden boot trophy emblematic of being the leading scorer in camp. I could just visualize a perplexed father -- who probably had to make major sacrifices to finance his son's participation on the state ODP team and for his travel to Boise for the regional camp -- wondering how his boy could be the leading scorer among the top players in an entire region and still be shipped home with only a trophy to show for his efforts.
ODP is a program run by coaches who come from predominantly college environments and who are seeking to identify players to play at the college level. The players themselves are mostly motivated to participate in ODP in hopes of landing a college scholarship. There's nothing wrong with that. An education is a great thing. But when you are trying to develop players for professional and national teams, college soccer is not the ideal path. The makeup of the coaching staffs generally reflect the makeup of the majority of kids involved in ODP. Namely, Anglo coaches and Anglo players with an Anglo perspective on life and soccer.
What is needed are players who want to make soccer their life. It's no accident that a huge percentage of minor league baseball players are products of the Caribbean. They are more willing to put up with the long bus rides and the lousy salaries in the hope of making The Show. It's no accident that most of the best basketball players come from less privileged backgrounds. It's no accident that the harshest of pro sports, boxing, has historically mined most of its talent from the tenements that housed the latest ethnic or racial group at the bottom of the economic barrel -- Latinos, blacks and, before them, Italian, Irish and Jewish populations.
It's ironic that most black kids in this country tend to think of soccer as a white or a foreign sport, not realizing that everywhere else in the world it's the sport of the poor. In other words, kids just like themselves. It's sad that so many Latino kids, who grow up with the game, feel or are made to feel as outsiders.
If the United States Soccer Federation is truly serious about identifying and developing elite soccer players, it must tweak the Olympic Development Program as we currently know it. It must adopt what baseball has done in places such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela by having the state associations and pro teams create subsidized soccer academies in the inner cities.
The future of American soccer does not reside in the leafy suburbs but, rather, in places where most soccer moms and talent scouts would never think of driving through, let alone visiting. Until those in charge of the process actively pursue the youngsters hungering for a better life through soccer, the United States will never become the soccer power that it can and should be.
Fred Guzman has been involved in U.S. soccer as a journalist, executive, administrator and coach for more than 30 years.