Youth Football: Too Many Geniuses

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Long before summer’s first heat wave, temperatures were running hot among the parents of some Indianapolis, Indiana 8-year-olds. A series of gaffes by the young teenage centre official was perceived to have had undermined the ­credibility of the coach of what was “apparently” a gifted-and-talented program for young footballers. This in turn forced families to hang fire over their first-graders’ athletic fate. Then, just as that problem seemed close to simmering down, a parent of a player on the other team became irate at the absence of a “no call,” claiming the official was biased, causing more reactions and rousing the ire of both sets of parents and coaching staffs.

Like any system that creates an elite benefit and doles it out to a lucky few, the youth football developmental program in its current form in the United States is a lightning rod for anxiety and resentment. Alongside some 700,000 roster-spots on standard-track, general, run-of-the-mill club teams the Developmental Academies, National Leagues and ECNL all offer only a small fraction of those seats on the bench within their elite programs, which originated to serve the small percentage of young footballers whom are so brilliant that they are at a disadvantage on a normal team. Within each major metropolitan are certain football clubs maintain ‘elite’ teams open to the ‘gifted’ players. In addition, a handful of ‘truly elite’ clubs are open to ‘truly elite’ players from anywhere. To qualify for either type, kids either are evaluated at tryouts or are straight up “recruited.”

At first glance, the system looks highly selective, but the numbers are misleading. For example, a player who is ranked in the 99th percentile is not better than 99 percent of their fellow footballers but only a mathematically generated hypothetical football population. Twenty percent are in the “97th percentile”; 40 percent are in the “90th,” etc…

What was originally conceived of as a special curriculum for developing the truly exceptional youth footballer has come to be seen by many as more about providing a shot at a high-quality alternative to the often-unimpressive mid-tier clubs kids are otherwise assigned to by default. In other words, elite training is nothing more than the Chihuahua pulling the semi-trailer out of a ditch.

At least it is something. For most in the successful-but-not-affluent middle class, Youth Football has become a real-life reality show in which every year more cohorts gets voted off the island. Along with a bevy-of wins, the crest of an elite club emblazoned upon our children’s gear is one of the handholds that let us hang on for a little bit longer. Personally having experienced this from all sides of the equation; as well as being away from the youth game in the States for long spells, all afforded a new perspective on things.

There is a constituency, then, for keeping elite training participation and competition opportunities broad, even if doing so defeats one of the main benefits of the elite environment, to create an environment for players where everyone is as brilliant as they are. This drawback is baked into standard-track, general, run-of-the-mill club programs, which are numerous enough that hyper selectivity is never really the point. The truly elite programs, on the other hand, offer such an extremely limited number of roster spots. However, even there, so many players qualify that entire pools of potential players are formed as opposed to one single set on a roster. The players might as well be selected by lottery.

US Soccer has tried to return elite player development to its roots with the introduction of Player Development Academies and while there have been some successes, the drawbacks and pitfalls can be argued to have thus far greatly outweighed them. Yet, the question begs if it is a new combination of clubs, teams and structures that would presumably be less susceptible to dilution, which many proponents of the PDAs believe has become endemic.

Never the less, parental pressure seemingly forced their hand when it came to the issue of club vs. high school soccer and the ever growing “decision”…or unwritten ‘mandate…to choose one or the other. Then, as high-school programs saw their numbers diminish and key elements of such programs tilt the way of the “evil club system” the high schools called “balk” leaving the clubs to deal with the situation all alone. Therein lies part of the problem; there is no organized structure or pathway for youth development in the United States. There is no road-map to follow when such situations’ arise…no GPS coordinates to punch-in…thus leaving youth soccer to fend for itself with the ominous horizon of “darned if I do and darned if I don’t” leering.

As a matter of politics, US Soccer could raise their level of involvement in an attempt to fix the error, but not diminish the philosophies that they stand. Yet the number of roster spots for elite-players has consistently ballooned. This is great for footballers who want and even need experience at the next level, but for players who truly are exceptional; this change only waters down their already slim chances of getting the real developmental experiences they need. The daughter of one of my mates, for instance, excels at the elite-level when given the opportunity. If there was a structured pathway for players like her to move up and through the system (as there are in other nations such as Germany, Netherlands and even lesser known footballing counties such as Australia) she may already be capped based on pure performance. Unfortunately, because the current system has little forward unless you “know’ someone, have a “name” or represent the right club her odds of getting the all-elusive, yet potentially deserved “cap” calculate out to about one in twelve.

…and so, my mates daughter, in an effort to continue playing at the highest possible level she could, took her wares to a club team in another city three hours away and one where she would choose to not participate in high school soccer; at least until she had an idea of what direction her young football career was going. That is when the s***-storm erupted on soccer blogs and internet soccer forums. My mates decision to support his daughter’s choice to leave public-school football on tenterhooks also enlightened other aspiring parents who were finding themselves in similar muddy-waters who then chose to make similar decisions and thus leaving the high-school football system on hold, public and private alike, because they shut down the usual summer long game of musical chairs that is unofficially dubbed “who returns what, who and where,” in which parents, fans and coaches alike get their kicks out of debating which high-school has the best chance at winning the State-Title based upon the number of ‘elite-level’ club players a particular school rosters and so on. This domino effect can run well past the start of the school season even in the best of times. All these problems just prolong the agony.

People were saying terrible things about my mate who was freshly becoming one of the most hated football dads in the Indianapolis, Indiana metropolitan area. A sample of comments that he and his daughter received: “The guy is deranged;” “Really embarrassing herself” and “What a self-serving A-hole.” He did not back down and neither did his daughter. It is like mathematics, it is either right or it is wrong. You have to do what is right and not get caught up in the numbers. The current identification and evaluation system just is not accurate enough in its current form to rank one player over another.

For the parents of these players; those who received placement offers, they had only a short amount of time to respond, after which the club will see who is next on the list and then send out another round of placement offers, most likely in the same-day and even within the hour. How the allotments will play out after that, nobody knows, but many parents will likely find their anxiety smouldering on through the next 48-72 hours.

For his part, my mate says he and his family plan to sit tight. He is considering putting his daughter in a private school. Meanwhile, she is pressing on with her footballing dreams. “The decision has been made, so it’s not going to affect my kid,” he says. “But there’s a value in finding the truth.” He is not too worried about the public scorn either. “You don’t want to be politically correct,” he argues. “You want clubs to provide the right development to the players who really need it.”

Dinesh V

Co-founder of Soccersouls. Living a start-up life 24/7 Follow @dineshintwit

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