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Why men’s soccer in the U.S. is failing

Kids in America are constantly reminded that sports reign supreme. 

Unlike other countries in the world, there is a market for every major sport here; from basketball, football, hockey and baseball down to lacrosse, table tennis and even e-sports – all with major professional leagues. 

But the sport that has historically struggled to take off is men’s soccer, despite the fact that it’s the most popular sport in the world. It would make sense that America, a country with 330 million people, would be competitive on an international level.

So, the question is: Why does such a large and developed country struggle to put together an elite men’s national soccer team?

The answer lies in the youth. The U.S. youth soccer system is extremely flawed. The main reason being that kids from low-income families can’t pay to play at the top level where the recognition is. 

According to USA Today High School Sports, elite youth soccer clubs charge $2,500 to $5,000 a year for a kid to play on the team, plus travel and registration costs. Whereas for sports like basketball and football it is much cheaper for kids to play at a high level. 

Elite club basketball is played through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and although that can cost around the same as club soccer, high school basketball is equally as important for young athletes to get noticed because of the scouting that occurs at these games as well. Moreover, because high schools focus more on football and basketball, soccer clubs are often the only way that a kid will get noticed by college scouts because high school soccer is not a feasible way to advance to the next level. 

With this cost, it becomes almost entirely kids who come from financially stable families that can afford to be on teams good enough to receive attention from colleges and continue to play past high school.

However, college soccer is still not an efficient route for athletes who want to go pro. There are only a very small number of collegiate players who make it, and they most often are drafted into the Major League Soccer (MLS), which, although growing, is still a very underdeveloped league. 

Miami does not have a varsity men’s soccer team, and other schools, including the University of Cincinnati, have recently cut their teams. 

You’d think with the high number of youth soccer players in America that there would be a way to produce top talent. Recently, the only way that top-tier American soccer players have burst onto the scene is through playing at academies in Europe.

Europe runs their programs differently in how they provide access to and develop their young players. One of the biggest ways is the national culture surrounding the sport. 

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With little to no competition for other major sports, all of Europe’s focus is put towards soccer –– and the pool of talented players is always growing. 

This may seem difficult to create in America, but it wouldn’t be if we adjusted another significant difference between us and Europe. Top players in Europe don’t pay to play. This has allowed some of the best players in the world such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to rise to the top, despite their lower-class upbringings. The reason that kids do not pay is that instead of the clubs being stand-alone organizations, they are attached to huge professional clubs. 

These clubs aren’t using their youth systems for profit, but rather to invest in their future. The MLS clubs in America are free as well, but they are so few and their reach is small. With professional and semi-professional teams in every city and town, kids in Europe never have to worry about money when chasing their dreams, or a ball.

It is disheartening to see kids with a passion for the beautiful game pushed away due to financial struggles outside of their control. And with colleges like our very own losing their programs due to a lack of interest and commitment makes the future of men's soccer feel bleak.  

There is something to hope for, however, as we see more young men born in America, who went across to play in European academies, return to the US Men’s National Team and finally give our fans something to cheer for.