Where do American soccer players come from? The simple answer is California. The more complicated answer offers an intriguing chance for the amateur cultural geographer in me to analyze the rosters of American professional teams—something I did a few weeks ago prior to the MLS season to consider the state of the men’s game, and something I’m doing this week on the women’s side as a nod to the start of the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) season.
The idea is that knowing where elite players come from offers a thought-provoking, if imperfect, picture of how the game works for different types of people and places. In this case the general picture suggests some similarities in the geography for male and female American players, but also highlights the peculiar demographics of soccer in the US.
When I analyzed the MLS rosters I suggested four key factors in men’s player production: population, climate, soccer culture, and immigrants. After looking at the WPS roster it strikes me that for women’s player production I have to swap ‘social class’ for ‘immigrants’ in that equation; American women’s soccer seems disproportionately represented by players from relatively wealthy suburban areas, while relatively underrepresented by players that are first or second generation immigrants.
Take Connecticut for example. The state with the highest per capita income in the US also has the highest per capita women’s player production of any US state (by my calculation there are 6 WPS players from among Connecticut’s 3.5 million people). On the MLS side, in contrast, all Connecticut has to offer is the Revolution’s Pat Phelan (and even he was born in Houston and went to prep school in Massachusetts). Certainly socio-economic status is not the only thing going on in Connecticut; there might well be some kind of ‘Kristine Lilly’ effect, for example, where her impressive longevity and prominence has inspired her younger fellow Connecticuters. But across my analysis there are suggestions that opportunities in women’s soccer are based on a combination of class and culture that probably limits the American game.
But I’ll explain my analysis more first and let you interpret the data for yourselves. And then I’ll explain a bit more about what I think it all means.
As when I looked at MLS rosters a few weeks ago, the goal here was to identify where players spent their formative years. But what does “formative” mean for a soccer player? I’m going teen years (pre-college) on the logic that it is during that stage of life when people decide whether to fully commit to the game. I realize, however, that an argument could be made for other stages.
I suspect, for example, that college is particularly important for women’s player production—more so than for men. Whereas MLS rosters are loaded with teenagers who never bothered with college, or players who went for a year or two, the American contingent of WPS players almost all played four years of college soccer. In fact, the only teenager in WPS is Swiss import Ramona Bachmann—who turns twenty in December. In age, and in other ways, WPS American players are more homogeneous than the American players in MLS (there are, for example, only seven American players in WPS over age 30).
Nevertheless, because college programs are often more of a geographical mish-mash, the focus here is on states and metropolitan areas as hubs for youth development in American women’s soccer. It was somewhat easier to find that data for WPS players than it was for MLS players both because the WPS web-site is much more informative and because there are fewer women’s players. Using the WPS list of players as of 2010 opening day, and cross-checking with college player profiles and with Wikipedia, I ended up with a spreadsheet of where 137 American players in WPS spent their adolescence. As I noted when looking at the men’s players, I’m sure I got a few minor details wrong—but with large enough numbers the statistical inferences can still be right.
As with the men’s side, players from California seem to predominate in American women’s soccer. I count 33 Californians in WPS (of which 24 are from ‘Cal South’ – either greater Los Angeles or greater San Diego), with Illinois second among US states at 10 and New Jersey third at 9. Of course, California is also the most populous US state (with about 36.5 million people), so in some ways it is more interesting to consider how other big states do not seem to be producing proportionate numbers of players. I was surprised to find, for example, that Texas only has 5 players in WPS despite being the second most populous US state (with about 23.5 million in population), while Florida only has 4 players in WPS despite being the fourth most populous (with about 18 million people).
The other states in the top 5 of population do a bit better despite much less soccer-friendly weather: New York State has produced 8 players from just over 19 million people, while Illinois has 10 players from 13 million. Those are ratios are not bad on a relative basis, but they are lower than the other, smaller, states with the highest women’s player production per capita:
- Connecticut: 6 players, 3.5 million people
- Hawaii: 2 players, 1.3 million people
- Colorado: 6 players, 4.7 million people
- New Jersey: 10 players, 8.7 million people
On the other side of things, the largest states to produce no players include:
- Tennessee (pop. 6 million)
- Kentucky (pop. 4.2 million)
- Oklahoma (pop. 3.6 million)
- Iowa (pop. 3 million)
- Mississippi (pop. 3 million)
On a per capita basis, of the states that have produced at least one player, the least productive seem to be:
- Maryland (1 player from 5.6 million people)
- Minnesota (1 player from 5.2 million people)
- Michigan (2 players from 10 million people)
- Texas (5 players from 23.5 million people)
- Georgia (2 players from 9.4 million people)
- Florida (4 players from 18 million people)
By Metropolitan Area
In US Youth Soccer state associations matter, but for club soccer purposes much of the competition level is based upon metropolitan areas—players from New Jersey and Connecticut often depend more on playing in the greater New York area than in their home states, just as players from Northern Virginia and Maryland depend on greater Baltimore-Washington DC. And from that perspective, being expansive in defining the reach of such metropolitan areas, the New York area seems to be about average with 18 WPS players from 22 million in population while the DC agglomeration has only 3 WPS players from 8.3 million (the greater Baltimore-Washington area did much better for men’s players with 12).
Nevertheless, on a per capita basis the East Coast metropolitan areas still don’t compete with other parts of the country:
- San Diego has produced 7 players with 3 million in population
- Denver (including Colorado Springs and Fort Collins) has produced 6 players with 3 million in population
- Birmingham, Alabama has 2 players with 1.2 million in population
- Indianapolis has 3 players with 2 million in population
It may be worth noting here that Denver is the only metropolitan area to be in the top five for both men’s and the women’s player production per capita. Though I wouldn’t have thought of Colorado as America’s soccer hotbed, by my calculations as of 2010 Denver seems to win the title of per capita US soccer capital.
On the other side of things the most notable big metropolitan areas with few WPS players include Houston (with 1 player from almost 6 million in population), Atlanta (with 2 players from almost 6 million), and the Florida cities (Tampa and Orlando have produced one player each despite each being around 3 million in population, while Miami – Fort Lauderdale has produced two from 5.5 million). At risk of pandering to stereotypes, it does seem as though living in the American South is not a good thing for women’s players.
In fact, while North Carolina is certainly not the “Deep South” it does offer an interesting example when contrasting male and female player production. In my analysis of men’s player production North Carolina was impressive: both the greater Raleigh – Durham area and the Greensboro – Winston-Salem area were among the national leaders in player production per capita, and Charlotte had one or two. But on the women’s side only Raleigh – Durham represents (with 2 WPS players from 1.8 million people); the one other WPS player from the state of North Carolina grew up in the Ashville area. That also means that the Charlotte area, with zero players from 2.3 million people, seems to be the largest metropolitan area in the US without any WPS players.
The rest of the poorly represented metropolitan areas are not all in the South; places such as Minneapolis-St. Paul (with 1 player from 3.5 million) and Detroit (with 2 players from 5.3 million) also have low per capita ratios. But for those places the same was true on the men’s side and it seems more easily attributable to Minnesota and Michigan weather. For places such as Memphis Tennessee (which is home to 3 MLS players, but zero WPS players) or Dallas Texas (which is home to 11 MLS players, but only 3 in WPS) it seems more relevant to ask questions about local sport cultures: are girls and women being given the same opportunities to play?
Ultimately I suspect opportunity is the key variable in any analysis of patterns in American player development. On both the men’s and women’s side of things, soccer in the US is still disproportionately (though certainly not exclusively) an expensive suburban sport. While there are many players from the greater Chicago, New York, LA areas, for example, there are virtually no players from within the actual city limits.
This seems even more pronounced on the women’s side than on the men’s side; for the women’s game a suburban bias is compounded by factors including: a greater emphasis in the women’s game on college as a route to going pro (with college disproportionately accessible to children from middle and upper class families), a lesser emphasis on women’s soccer in immigrant families, and lingering stereotypes both about gender norms and about who plays women’s soccer.
Still, by highlighting the seeming social class issues in American women’s player production I don’t mean to undermine the talent and hard work of contemporary players: regardless of where WPS players grew up, and regardless of the opportunities they have had, at an individual level all of them have earned a place and their skill is a joy to be appreciated. Becoming an elite player always requires a combination of opportunity, talent, and hard work. But at a national level anyone who cares about American soccer, for which success depends upon a broad and diverse base, would do well to keep in mind something else that requires hard work: creating truly equal opportunities.
(Note: As with the men’s analysis, there ended up being too many specific locales and names to list each individually—but I now have most of them in my spreadsheet. So if anyone is curious about other specific places, players, and proportions, feel free to leave a comment with any queries and I will try to respond)