The first signs came immediately on the heels of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup. Suddenly, there was an intense change in narrative on social media and in the broader soccer community: a vibrant discussion about the downside of pay-to-play. Of greatest interest to me, however, were equally passionate calls to focus more time, energy, and resources on providing opportunities for kids in underserved communities to experience the joy and benefits of our game.
As candidate after candidate for U.S. Soccer President entered the fray late last year, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that the major point all eight candidates “agree on is the importance of improving player development, particularly in regards to including players from lower-income backgrounds who can’t afford to participate in the current pay-to-play youth system.”
A few days after the final ballots were tallied at U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Membership meeting in Orlando, I had the opportunity to meet with Carlos Cordeiro in New York. The newly-elected U.S. Soccer President made it clear that he is committed to creating access and opportunities for “kids not registered, kids from underserved communities, [and kids from] more diverse communities.”
In the days and weeks since, individuals and soccer organizations from coast-to-coast have reached out to us here at the U.S. Soccer Foundation to explore ways we might work together to bring our game to children growing up in less fortunate circumstances. For example, the husband of a leader in Oregon’s adult soccer community wants to work with us to bring programming to low-income children in the suburban school district of which he is a board member. Kyle Martino, a TV analyst and recent candidate for U.S. Soccer President, shared his continued commitment to help create safe places for kids to play our game in underserved communities during a recent phone conversation. Leaders from Maryland’s MSI, a 15,000-player youth soccer powerhouse, recently visited our offices in Washington, D.C. to explore ways to reach kids in underserved communities in their county.
And here’s the kicker: none of these conversations focused on finding the next superstar. These conversations were about extending access to our game to children and communities that are not currently part of the broader soccer family.
Something is changing in soccer. Something for the better. I am incredibly hopeful that we—members of the soccer community at every level in this great country—are beginning to think differently about the game we love. We have begun the process of reimagining what success looks like, and not a moment too soon.
Most youth sports, not just soccer, are at a critical juncture. Participation numbers are stagnant or dropping at a time when the country is growing. There are a wide range of factors at play that include the increasing cost of participation. Just as important, data collected by the National Alliance for Youth Sports and others suggest that one of the biggest drivers behind the numbers is that children simply aren’t having fun. Too much competition. Too much pressure. At much too young an age.
The elite player pyramid that leads to increasing levels of competition and ultimately produces the young men and women who make up our national and professional teams will always exist. As it should. We want our best players competing at the highest levels. However, soccer leaders from the grassroots to the national level are now giving much needed attention to the 99 percent of youth players who won’t reach those heights. While they may never don a National team or MLS jersey, they are all future fans of our game. They are the people who will make up the teams in local adult leagues. They are the future parents who will enroll their kids in neighborhood soccer programs. They are the consumers who will buy the soccer gear and equipment from the businesses that support our sport. They are the ticket buyers and television viewers.
That’s the business case.
More importantly, youth sports are a key component of any healthy community. That extends beyond physical health. Youth sports connect neighbor to neighbor. Youth sports help children understand the importance of perseverance and to develop the grit that will help them grow and achieve on and off the field. Team sports like soccer provide a fun and engaging informal classroom where children learn leadership, teamwork, accountability to others, and how to win and lose gracefully. Put another way, they learn skills that are directly transferrable to their futures as members of a global workforce.
When we expand our lens of what youth sports can be—a key component in healthy, vibrant communities and a tool to develop the next generation of leaders—we not only nurture and grow our sport, we nurture and improve our communities.
That’s what excites me most about this emerging conversation in the soccer community. It’s people embracing the idea that by expanding our vision and pursuing additional opportunities to grow our game in every community, we can also leverage soccer’s ability to deliver meaningful and measurable social impact.
The media caricature of youth sports parents and coaches emphasizes the hyper-competitiveness that sometimes leads to bad behavior. I believe, however, that most soccer parents are just like you and me. They are people who care about children and about creating an environment through sports that allows them to have fun and that helps nurture their development. That care naturally centers first on our own children. However, based on hundreds of conversations in the last few years, I am convinced that sense of care extends to all children in the broader community. It’s simply who we are as Americans.
The question now is how do we tap into that sentiment to drive the game forward and to expand opportunities to play, learn and grow for children in underserved communities as well as for our own? We begin by showing people how it can be done, by showing the other side of our game. We remind people what really matters when it comes to youth sports.
At the U.S. Soccer Foundation, our Soccer for Success program will engage more than 65,000 children in underserved communities this school year. But we aren’t stopping there. We’ve set ambitious goals to reach 1 million children and build 1,000 new mini-pitches in underserved communities by 2026.
In addition to getting more kids playing our game—kids who previously did not have that opportunity—independent evaluations have validated significant positive health and youth development outcomes among Soccer for Success participants. While there are other viable approaches to engaging children in underserved communities, we have found that evidence of positive outcomes associated with Soccer for Success helps generate critical support from funders, elected officials and policymakers—and from regular people like you, people who believe that all children should enjoy the health and social benefits of soccer and sports in general.
There is no secret sauce. Soccer for Success and the work of the U.S. Soccer Foundation is but one part of the solution to creating access and opportunity in underserved communities. We must collaborate with non-traditional partners. We must educate policymakers about the pressing need for more safe places for all our children to play. If our game is to reach its full potential in this country, we must look beyond the needs of our own communities and play whatever role we can to ensure that children growing up in less fortunate circumstances have the opportunity to play. We must make sure that soccer is everyone’s game.
We have a lot of work to do. But we can and we will do it. Let’s get going. Join us at itseveryonesgame.org and add your name to the growing list of people who believe.
Ed Foster-Simeon is the President & CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation.