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Feb 19, 2009

Pay-to-play aspect still permeates youth soccer

Editor's note: This is Part 4 of a five-part series examining the structure and organization of the U.S. Soccer Federation and its youth programs. Coming in Part 5 is a look at the longer-term goals and challenges of the Development Academy.

The U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy has, in its brief existence, enjoyed some successes. National team coaches like U.S. U-20 manager Thomas Rongen have hailed the approach, with its emphasis on more practice time and better competition, as a huge step forward in player development, and the increased player pool for youth national teams is among the benefits. But one problem the Academy has not been able to solve is the steep cost of playing elite-level club soccer.

An informal poll of 16 non-MLS clubs participating in the Development Academy revealed that the total outlay for each player can be as high as $6,000 a year, with the average coming out to around $4,000. That's a hefty sum in any economy, never mind the depressed times that the U.S. is currently enduring. Such fees not only place an economic burden on families, but they also run the risk of shutting out kids who lack the financial means to pay such amounts, thus reducing the pool of available players.

That flies in the face of the Development Academy's stated goal of casting a wider net for future national team players. The USSF charges only $1 for player registration while also picking up the tab for referees. However, the fees for coaches, fields and equipment all add up, and the travel costs associated with playing in a national league remain a giant hurdle for some clubs.

"The travel in this program is a big issue," concedes the Academy's technical director, John Hackworth. "And we're making sure that we're minimizing the travel costs that will ultimately be passed on to the players and the parents. That is hard to do in a country as big as ours, especially with the standards and structure of our program."

To this end, the Development Academy has reduced the number of national showcases from three to two, thus removing one trip -- and for some clubs, one cross-country flight -- from the calendar. Yet the primary way costs have been reduced is by creating conferences based on geography, and in places like Southern California or North Carolina, most if not all games are within driving distance. But in a country as big as the U.S., there are places like Colorado where the concentration of clubs isn't as heavy, meaning teams often must fly to their games, significantly increasing the cost of fielding an Academy team.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. El Salvador
March 28
San Salvador, El Salvador
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
April 1
Nashville, Tenn.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

These expenses have forced teams to get very creative in finding outside streams of revenue, with sponsorship an increasingly key source. In the case of the Colorado Rush, a partnership with French club A.S. Monaco has helped reduce -- but not eliminate -- fees. In many cases, Development Academy players are also expected to help run clinics and assist coaches at younger age groups as a way of essentially "working off" money that has been spent on them. Clubs are also looking to local businesses to sponsor individual players.

But there are still instances in which even these efforts aren't enough to make playing on a Development Academy team affordable for kids from low-income families. In cases such as these, clubs will often make financial accommodations to keep a player in the fold. The USSF, in conjunction with the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Nike, has also started a scholarship program to help players from disadvantaged backgrounds cope with the cost. While every little bit helps, the challenge of accommodating these players is still immense.

"We have to work very hard to assist some of the more hardship-level cases," said Colorado Rush CEO Tim Schulz. "Right now, we haven't had anybody say 'no' because of finances. We've worked with them in some capacity."

For almost all of the clubs participating in the Development Academy, these challenges are nothing new. And the feeling is that the program's benefits have given players more bang for their buck.

"[The cost] is less than it would be to play on a team that travels to major showcases like Disney and Final Four," said Dave Costa, the head coach with Carmel United's U-18 side. "Basically we're getting so much more in terms of training. There's three extra months to your season, and with the exposure to the number of college coaches and national team scouts, it's less than it would be to play on those other teams."

Yet Schulz admits that by the time players reach the U-15 age group that currently comprises the first tier of the Development Academy, the costs have already proved to be too great for some families, at which point a case of out of sight, out of mind takes over. Given the stiff competition for athletes that soccer faces from other sports in this country, as well as the fact that the U.S. still resides well below the elite soccer nations in terms of producing great players, it isn't in a position where it can be turning kids away. Simply put, this is an impediment that needs to be removed.

So will the day ever come when a Development Academy team will be fully funded? With nine MLS teams already participating in the program, that day has already arrived for some. A professional club, with its significantly greater resources, has the financial means to make this happen, and MLS teams are keen to tout the fact that they don't charge players to be on their teams. In addition to Monaco, foreign clubs like Chelsea have also gotten into the act, providing significant subsidies to several participating teams. While some clubs decry the presence of professional teams as creating an uneven playing field, their involvement has had the effect of motivating neighboring clubs to find ways to reduce their fees.

"Without a professional affiliation, eliminating the cost for players is difficult," said Schulz, who competes for players with the Colorado Rapids of MLS. "But it is a challenge that is put in front of us because if in fact a youth club has a professional team in their backyard, they're going to have to work very hard to make the cost zero, or at least equivalent to what the professional team is offering. Otherwise they'll lose the kids."

But even if one assumes that every MLS and USL-1 side fields fully funded Development Academy teams, that still won't provide the depth of coverage needed to blanket the entire country with a zero-cost option. It leaves dozens of other clubs nationwide scrambling to cover their expenses, meaning that pay-to-play is here to stay, at least for a while.

That said, Hackworth and the rest of his colleagues at the USSF aren't giving up in their quest to eliminate fees.

"As our governing body, we still want to try and tackle those challenges so that cost is not an issue," said Hackworth. "Is it still out there? Absolutely, but we are focused on continually trying to figure out ways to change our own administration of what we do here with this program so that we can continue to help the players and the clubs decrease their costs."

Fans of the U.S. national team can only hope that the Federation is successful in its quest to eliminate pay-to-play. The future success of the U.S. program may well depend on it.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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