The Sweeper: Soccer Is Inevitable. But how?

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Your editor is behind today, as  I spent last night meeting with Chicago Fire owner and chairman Andrew Hauptman, discussing many of the issues I raised in my open letter to Fire ownership last month. At the end of that letter, I asked Andrew to sit down with us to figure out how we can achieve the goals in Section 8 Chicago’s mission statement.  The meeting was positive and for those interested, Section 8 Chicago will be making a public statement later today outlining the steps we are committed to with ownership.

I realise that might not interest everyone, but it’s at the top of my mind and this piece in the Chicago Tribune today by columnist John Kass on the Fire made me think about the future of the club and the culture of soccer here even more. Kass interviews Frank Klopas, the Fire’s Technical Director and Ring of Fire inductee, who stated that “U.S. Soccer is inevitable,” (for some reason, I really love the finality of that phrasing).

But more important than that was Klopas’ explanation of how that can be achieved, as it’s not actually inevitable — it will take hard work and vision by people like Frank at the grassroots weaving the legion of youth soccer players into the fabric of MLS club soccer. And one thing myself and Fire ownership did easily agree on last night is how proud fans should be that the Fire has the #1 ranked MLS youth academy in the country.

The importance of this was emphasised by Klopas: “The key to the future is that we have a pyramid now, that leads up to the first team, just like any European club. We have the Fire Juniors, where an 8-year-old kid can wear a Fire shirt, and on up to the academy team, which is extremely competitive. The organization’s goal is that within three or four years, we want some kids from that academy playing in Toyota Park, wearing the Fire jersey. That’s when you have the commitment, when you have local kids playing, that’s when the people will feel, ‘This is our team.’ ”

This is exactly what we need to develop here and that’s exactly the kind of public leadership and commitment to such a goal that American soccer needs if it is indeed going to be inevitable.

A few quick-links now as I have to get back to the public statement mentioned above. . .

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The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “The Sweeper: Soccer Is Inevitable. But how?

  1. Andrew Guest

    Good to hear about the potential for better collaboration between the community and the Fire.

    At a very abstract level, however, I do wonder about whether more professionalization of youth soccer in the US is always the answer. I’m not sure its a good thing to have 8-year olds signing up — I know they are just doing games and development stuff, but why does that have to happen in a professional business environment (noting also that MLS teams are not just doing this for the good of the game–they make a lot of money of camps and youth program fees)? If anything, US youth soccer is already too professional and too business like–it strikes me that we need more kids who want to play the game because its fun, who experience the joy of the game, and fewer who just play because parents and adults organize it for them.

    The argument seems to always go that we need more of a European environment with younger and younger pros. But places like Brazil, Argentina, and Ghana seem to be doing pretty well because kids first learn to love the game, and then if they are good enough they get into professional environs. In my mind if you look at the recent U-17 team, the US players had lots of well-trained players who have been with the best clubs and academies (Bradenton) money can buy. But they had very little spark, and very little feel for the game compared to their competitors. I would argue that is not because they are not professional enough–I would argue it is because the game is already just a job to them.

    I would even speculate that one reason why the massive numbers of US kids who play soccer has not much translated to massive numbers of supporters is because youth soccer is not fun–it’s adult driven, a resume builder, an activity only to be done when supervised and organized, oriented towards professionalization. But no matter how good US professional clubs become, few individuals will ever make their living playing the game. Of course professional clubs have a role to play, but I worry when they get all the attention at the expense of thinking about how to better make soccer a fun part of schools, community centers, parks, and American life writ large.

  2. Tom

    Andrew — I think it’s the opposite in terms of structured youth development in the US. Professional clubs have the luxury of NOT needing to win at youth level, unlike the incredibly competitive youth soccer market for travel clubs in the US, so they can have a more relaxed philosophy based on the love of the game (at least to a greater degree). See Frank’s comments in the rest of the piece:

    “That’s all youth soccer should be about, development,” Klopas said. “At the professional level, you’re judged on winning. But the biggest problem with youth soccer here is that in some areas, in the younger ages, it’s about winning, winning, winning.

    “Winning doesn’t matter when they’re 12 or 14 or even 16. Develop the players the right way, you’re going to win more than you lose. You develop them, develop their skills, their sense of the game, so when they get here to this level, they’re ready.”

    And believe me, the Fire are NOT making money on youth development — they’ve invested a huge amount for little return, including a largely free academy with a much higher, poorer inner-city demographic.

  3. Andrew Guest

    Good points Tom; though I still am a bit skeptical of emphasizing a completely top-down development system (“You [the adult / professional organization] develop them”). Not only for the soccer world, much of best practice in youth organizations recognizes development as an interactive process–but that is often a tough sell in American culture that likes to turn things over to the pros. I think ultimately I’m just suggesting that an underemphasized piece of the puzzle is having American kids play/enjoy the game when nobody is watching. It actually sounds (from the Trib story) as though Klopas himself developed that way–and he turned out to be a pretty decent player!

  4. A. Ruiz

    Well, with a relatively small number of MLS teams in a country of 300 something million. There will be plenty of space for other methods of player development to flourish and even unstructured play.

    Theres probably not enough teams/programs. Look at how players like Jose Francisco Torres, Edgar Castillo, and Jorge Flores fell through the gaps, who knows how many other players like that exist. So teams like the Galaxy, Chivas, Chicago and etc providing training for little or no cost is important.

  5. Vodka

    Did anyone else see the “roughest display of defending”, I thought it was a pretty cool video to see on youtube. Dude without the internet I don’t what I would be doing!!

  6. Jennifer Doyle

    Please see my articles about the New Mexico/BYU game – it’s scandalous – not the play itself – imagine if the ref’s basically stopped calling fouls in the last 30 minutes of the Man U/Chelsea game today (actually, I’m sure Man U wishes they had). Point is, the referee lost control of that match. And the truly sad thing is, there are so few recordings of women’s soccer out there for fans, it just plain sucks when ESPN does a story like this one. You’ll find a link on my blog to their follow up – in which they, you know, actually did some, uhm, reporting – and interviewed a journalist who was at the game, and left us with questions about how the match was run in terms of the ref’s and the coach.