The Future of Soccer

By Al Albert
President, National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA)

NSCAA President, Al AlbertMembers who will attend the NSCAA Convention in Baltimore this month probably will notice the tremendous diversity of our rapidly-growing membership. Founded by a small group of college soccer coaches in 1941, the NSCAA has grown to more than 25,000 members from many different cultures and backgrounds. Reflecting this constituency, our organization currently sponsors a Latin American Coaches Committee, a Black Soccer Coaches Committee and a Women’s Committee, with others probably to be added in the future.

In the spirit of helping soccer grow in the U.S. and become the sport of the masses as it is everywhere else in the world, the NSCAA is developing a partnership as well with the Urban Soccer Collaborative. The USC is a relatively new group, but one that encompasses several organizations which have been promoting soccer to underserved areas for many years – America Scores, Soccer in the Streets, Starfinder Foundation, City Kicks, Project Goal and the Eddie Pope Foundation, to name a few.

Unfortunately, as soccer has experienced rapid growth in this country during the past two decades, it has grown for the most part as a middle-class to upper-middle-class sport. Travel soccer fees are often too high for lower income families to afford, and their athletically talented children move into sports like football, basketball and track, where they can compete at a very high level for little cost. Soccer is seen by some as an elite sport, one that the kids from the affluent side of town are playing.

A pivotal point for me personally was when my local newspaper referred to soccer, along with golf and tennis, as “country club sports.” In our community, there was a clear socioeconomic difference between the youths who played football, basketball, baseball and track and those participating in soccer, swimming, golf and tennis. Our local soccer club has since attempted to change this demographic with an outreach program that targets underserved children using an after-school and weekend program in the elementary schools. There is no cost to participate and transportation and quality coaching are provided. Although the program is time-consuming to coordinate, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Our club presently sponsors 10 teams at six schools, serving almost 150 children.

Drive through any large city in America and it is likely that you will find neighborhoods that are totally devoid of soccer facilities. You certainly can’t say that about basketball. Most of the soccer fields are out in the suburbs and the city kids rarely get to play there. The U.S. Soccer Foundation, which has been instrumental in the growth of the Urban Soccer Collaborative, has been working to remedy this situation for years, but there still is a long way to go before soccer is equally accessible to underserved youth.

I can relate to this inequity from a personal perspective. As a child growing up on the west side of Baltimore, the only sports option for me was Little League baseball that was too far away to reach on foot. I never got that opportunity because my family had one car and one driver – my dad, who worked as a traveling salesman. I desperately wanted to play on an organized team, but never got to do that until much later in life. Today, without a “soccer mom” or “soccer dad” and a family with significant discretionary income, what chance does a child have to play on one of the many expensive travel soccer teams?

The mission of the Urban Soccer Collaborative is to spread the game to the inner city and other communities where underserved youths do not have the opportunity to play. Many of the members of the USC are single clubs or teams that have a specific outreach program for this purpose. Several factors must be addressed to accomplish this mission. Successful programs involve recruitment of coaches and participants, providing transportation and conducting practices and games in underserved neighborhoods, These outreach programs require planning and organization, and extensive resources must be a part of any such initiative.

All of the organizations in the USC have goals related to developing young soccer players and fostering a love for the game. Some of these programs also feature an academic component, while others include character and leadership development. The common thread is soccer, and helping underserved children improve their future through sport.

At our NSCAA Awards Banquet last January in Indianapolis, Sunil Gulati of U.S. Soccer spoke about the huge opportunity in this country to cultivate interest in soccer among a large African-American population that has yet to embrace the sport. Imagine hundreds of young players in tough inner-city environments striving for an opportunity to play professional soccer in MLS or for teams abroad. Instead of one Eddie Johnson, there would be many choices, just as there are today for skilled positions in the NFL or point guards in the NBA. The same can be said for talented inner-city female athletes, who easily could be candidates for college soccer scholarships if they had the opportunity to learn the game at an early age.

The continual growth of Major League Soccer as a true professional league in our country and the hopeful return of a viable women’s professional league will give emerging talent the chance to play at the professional level. Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN and network stations have brought top professional soccer from all over the world into many households. Although this will certainly help the spread of the game into underserved areas from the top down, successful diversification depends upon a complement of low cost opportunities for youth players provided by many varied types of soccer organizations. We also must continue to train qualified coaches and peer mentors from these communities so they can begin identifying and developing players at an early age and continue to provide opportunities as they mature in the sport.

The NSCAA, along with its NSCAA Foundation, is committed to this cause, but it is the responsibility of every individual coach, every individual club, high school, college team and professional team in this country to help correct the imbalance that currently exists in youth soccer. We all must work together to make soccer — the most popular game in the world — available to everyone in this country, regardless of their economic situation.

If you have any interest in learning more about this topic and the Urban Soccer Collaborative, please attend the panel discussion to be held at the NSCAA Convention at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19, in Convention Center 321 or visit the Collaborative’s page on the U.S. Soccer Foundation web site (www.ussoccerfoundation.org).

This article appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Soccer Journal, the official magazine of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. For more information on the NSCAA and its programs, please visit www.NSCAA.com.

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