Homegrown talent

Given the record of British coaches in developing players in the UK, is it a good idea that they are doing well in the burgeoning and highly profitable US soccer market? Mike Woitalla doesn’t think so

One of the myriad American youth soccer programmes declares it uses “soccer as a tool to teach kids about life”. Classes are open to children from 18 months old and, by the time a child is three, the Lil’ Kickers coaches will be teaching them “concepts of co-operation and teamwork”. So now, even for the youngest, it’s not just a game. If it were and kids were simply given a place to kick around in the manner that has created the world’s best players, could Lil’ Kickers promise the indoor arenas that host their classes an annual income boost of £125,000?

They could not. Because parents wouldn’t cough up the fees if the coaches just let the kids play. Among those taking advantage of parents’ willingness to pay are several British coaching companies. Preceding David Beckham’s arrival by two years was his academy in southern California. Parents spend nearly £200, not including accommodation, to send children as young as eight to a three-day camp to do the “same drills that David Beckham and his coaching staff did as youth players”. But long before Beckham, a British coaching industry began exploiting the game at youth level in a country where, according to a US Soccer Federation survey, “the higher the household income, the higher the likelihood of playing soccer”.

The fact that the Federation’s coaching guidelines discourage structured soccer for very young children is widely ignored. UK Elite Soccer offers sessions for three-year-olds as part of what it calls “the most comprehensive Professional Development Package available in the USA”. Challenger Sports British Soccer helps three- and four-year-olds “develop the fundamental technical aspects of the game: dribbling, turning, stopping, passing and shooting”. It doesn’t seem to matter that British coaches haven’t exactly done a stellar job with their own players. Mediterranean and South American teams and players dominate world soccer and provide the most entertaining style of play, but Americans continue to embrace the British game even though US demographics, with a large, promising and barely tapped Latino player base, should demand that soccer move away from the British/northern European model.

But ignorance still reigns in many quarters of US soccer. When UK International Soccer Camps, which runs programmes in 34 states, held a camp in Los Alamos, a local paper wrote: “Professional British soccer coaches will lead the camp with foreign flair.” Flair and British soccer in the same sentence? Only in America.

In addition to the thriving camp business, the Brit firms have entered the lucrative year-round club coaching market. There are nearly 4,000 “elite” or “travel” youth clubs in the USA. Coaches get paid up to £80 each time they show up for training or games. In northern California, the UK 24-7 Academy took over coaching a couple of youth clubs. On his online resumé, UK 24-7’s head coach claims eight years of coaching Wimbledon in the Premier League and a year with Leeds United. (He actually worked in their Football in the Community programmes.) When a club director was asked whether he hired UK 24‑7 because playing soccer à la Wimbledon suited California kids, he revealed that he hadn’t even considered the style-of-play question.

And, for the most part, that crucial issue is neglected in the USA. All the flaws of the British game are hardly an obstacle for British companies. Challenger imported nearly 600 coaches this summer to run camps in 1,700 US communities for more than 80,000 children and provides coaching for another 20,000 kids in year-round club soccer.

For sure, pay-to-play youth soccer is an American invention. Parents shell out up to £5,000 a year to pay for club coaches, personal trainers, tournament travel and the US national team’s identification scheme, the Olympic Development Program, which charges kids more money each time they climb the ladder. Such costs are why children from low-income backgrounds, particularly Latino players, have been marginalised. The British coaching firms are not to blame for these problems, but they are contributing to the spiralling costs, the epidemic of over-coaching and the Eurocentric stranglehold on the American game.

From WSC 246 August 2007