One Year On: How the USMNT can finally rebuild from the failure in Couva

A few months ago, I was explaining to a Colombian classmate the topic of this paper — how key stakeholders can push aside the wreckage of U.S. soccer’s World Cup qualification failure, and stimulate meaningful soccer development in America. She laughed at the premise that soccer could ever become a major sport in America, noting that America simply does not have the cultural context to embrace soccer the way that Latin American countries do. While I agree with her that there are certain historical aspects of Latin American culture that facilitate soccer’s popularity in that region which the United States will never be able to replicate, there are many other cultural aspects that the United States can and should aim to emulate and adopt. I went to Russia for the World Cup, and interviewed 40 attendees—many of whom hailed from Latin American countries—on several topics, namely, how they got hooked on the beautiful game.

It has been said that nobody goes crazy for their soccer quite like Latin Americans, and anecdotal evidence from this year’s World Cup backs up this claim: the five most popular jerseys I observed in Russia were of Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. The stats also support this claim — other than Russia, the countries with the most ticket sales, as of April 30, were 1) United States, 2) Brazil, 3) Colombia, 4) Germany, 5) Mexico, 6) Argentina, 7) Peru. Many of the fans I spoke with in Russia who were wearing Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Peru shirts actually lived in the United States, which perhaps explains why the U.S. led in ticket sales after Russia. Even though they live in America, even though they may not be first-generation or second-generation immigrants, these fans still cheer for the national teams of their ancestors and will travel across the world to cheer them on.

In response to the survey question “Please rate how important each of the following factors were to you when making the decision to attend the World Cup,” the response most frequently marked as “1-Very Important” was “Once in a lifetime experience.” Of course, the very experience of going to a World Cup is extremely special and rare; for many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Interestingly though, when asked “Please rate how important the following attractions were to you when making the decision to attend the World Cup,” the response that was the 2nd most frequently marked as “1-Very Important” was “Wanting to support national team.” While 49.69 percent of recipients marked the “Opportunity to watch world class football” as “1-Very Important,” 47.96 percent of recipients marked “Wanting to support national team” as “1-Very Important.” Many of those people who ranked both “Wanting to support national team” and “Once in a lifetime” as very important came from countries like Panama, who played in the first World Cup in their nation’s history, and Peru, who played in their first World Cup since 1982. For fans of these nations, merely qualifying for the World Cup was a unique opportunity that may only come to pass once in their lifetime. This comes in sharp contrast to the United States, which, before their qualifying disaster last November, had qualified for every World Cup since 1990. American fans are used to qualifying for the World Cup, but they are also used to their teams in other sports winning “World Championships” and being crowned “World Champions.” When you are accustomed to being number one in certain sports, it is hard to get excited about a sport that your country ranks #25 in.

While Americans may never be able to shake their sense of entitlement towards being #1 in sports, and while they may never be as excited about qualifying for a World Cup as Peruvians or Panamanians were, there is still potential to grow soccer’s popularity in America by emulating an aspect of Latin American “football socialization.” When asked on the survey, “Which of the following best describes how you developed an interest in football (soccer)?” the most common answer recipients gave was “playing the sport.” If key stakeholders want to stimulate the growth of soccer as a spectator sport in America, if they want to increase the percentage of soccer fans in America, they should focus on increasing the percentage of youth and adolescent soccer players in America. However, with so many barriers hindering American soccer from becoming the most-played sport in America, this is easier said than done.

In the second half of the 19th century, there was a massive influx of European immigrants into South America, and they brought soccer with them. These immigrants organized their own football clubs and informal league tournaments, and South Americans from different ethnic groups and different social classes began to adopt the sport. Thanks to soccer’s low barrier of entry, anyone could play it: they didn’t need 7’ by 21’ goalposts, they didn’t need shin guards, cleats, and jerseys, they didn’t even need a regular ball. All they needed were two pairs of two things — socks, bottles, anything — to act as goal posts, and something to kick around. It is precisely this informal nature, this low barrier of entry, that allowed soccer to spread like wildfire in Latin America and become the most popular sport in the region.[3] People of all social statuses can and did play soccer, and as a result, soccer maximized its potential in the region, enthralling people from different economic means, and making them addicted to soccer.

It is the failure to implement and adopt soccer’s inherent low barrier to entry that has caused American soccer to fail to maximize its potential and has caused America to fail to attract people of poor socio-economic backgrounds to soccer. While 25 percent of the U.S. population has household income under $25,000, only 11 percent of soccer participant households have income under $25,000. In contrast, while about 20 percent of U.S. households have income over $100,000, 37% of soccer participants have income over $100,000. Only 5 percent of families with incomes over $60,000 said the costs associated with school sports caused a drop in their child’s participation. But in families with incomes under $60,000, 19 percent said costs led their kids to participate less. American soccer is a rich kids’ sport, and this rich kids’ sport prevents non-suburban, low-income kids from participating at the same rate that high-income kids do, and in turn, prevents soccer from being as popular in the U.S. as in other regions of the world, like Central and South America.

American kids don’t play soccer with bare feet on the streets; they play with expensive cleats on manicured fields. The costs of organized soccer in America are so high that 40 percent of youth soccer players will leave the sport between the ages 13 and 18, often due to excessive costs. As they grow up, players’ families pay more and more for equipment, jerseys, registration fees, coaches, tournament travel, and more.

It is clear that America produces talented athletes, but many of those athletes come from impoverished areas, where the only pathway to success and wealth is athletic stardom. In 2013, Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers and Greg Kaplan, a University of Chicago economics professor, compared the background of each U.S. men’s national team member from 1993 to 2013 to that of every NBA all star and NFL pro bowler over the same period, using socio-economic data from their hometown zip codes. They found the soccer players came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the U.S. average, while the basketball and football players came from places that ranked lower than average on those same indicators. It should come as no surprise that low-income boys in America are 50 percent more likely to play basketball than soccer; unlike in soccer, kids don’t have to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars each year to play organized basketball.

By making the prices of organized soccer in America unnecessarily high, America is not only failing to maximize the potential of its soccer talents, but is also failing to maximize the potential of its soccer fan base. As the survey data collected from the World Cup 2018 indicates, fans across the world fall in love with soccer by playing it; if key stakeholders want to increase the number of soccer fans in America, they are going to have to work to increase the number of soccer players first.

When N’Golo Kanté and Kylian Mbappé raised the World Cup on July 15, 2018, France fans all across that country rejoiced and resonated with their stories. These players had gone from the banlieues — the Parisian slums — to become among the best in their position, and to become world champions. A story like theirs has been unfeasible in the United States, a country that fails to produce world-class soccer players, but that also siphons off poor, aspiring footballers from organized soccer to other sports, as they cannot afford to pay the excessive costs currently associated with organized soccer. If the United States is ever going to be an elite footballing nation, they will need to make soccer a sport for everybody, not just for the rich.

Fortunately, several efforts are currently underway to make organized soccer available to low-income children in the United States.  Much of the current groundwork is being done by innovative non-profit organizations. One such soccer organizer, who wished to remain anonymous, lamented the lack of action from higher-ups in U.S. Soccer. “There’s nothing really sanctioned and impactful across the board,” he noted.  “It’s mostly a loose confederation of entities with a limited and isolated impact rather than some grand plan or schema.”

One of these organizations is America SCORES, a nationwide, nonprofit, after-school child care program. America SCORES students — 85 percent of whom live below the poverty line – don’t go home after school while their parents are still at work, potentially to a life of gang activity and unsafe, risky behaviors; rather, they stay after school and do one of three activities. On Monday, they have soccer practice. On Tuesday, they either learn poetry and how to write their own poetry, or do community service. On Wednesday, it’s soccer practice again. On Thursday, it’s either service or poetry for 90 minutes. On Friday, it’s game day.

America SCORES is firing on all cylinders, and the numbers back up its success. Students in the program report an 88 percent increase in self-confidence, an 80 percent increase in classroom participation, and they get 10 times more exercise than the national average. In addition, students overall write more than 50,000 original works per year, and student community service projects like ending hunger and fighting illiteracy provided 200,000 hours of volunteer work last year.

America SCORES has 12 affiliates across the US and Canada, and has remained free to students in grades K-8 due to corporate, foundation, and government funding, as well as individual donations. With more funding, the organization will not only be able to expand past 12 affiliates, thus accessing more low-income students, but also provide winter programs and summer programs to each site.

Another such organization is Soccer In The Streets, a local, Atlanta-based nonprofit that aims to empower its youth with a holistic, soccer-based approach. Each year, Soccer In The Streets trains 1,700 kids in the Atlanta metropolitan area, helping them through soccer training, character development, mentoring, and employability programs. One of these programs is Positive-Choice Soccer, which teaches kids to create a better life for themselves by “matching important life skills with accompanying soccer skills. Specific character traits are emphasized throughout the program to prepare the kids for success on and off the field.”

In addition, Soccer In The Streets prepares its students for their future careers, helping to ingrain in them key skills necessary to stand out in a competitive marketplace and succeed. The “Life Works” program focuses on eradicating at-risk behaviors among youth, and establishing a strong bond between students and coaches. Both Soccer In The Streets and America SCORES help establish career readiness, creativity, and healthy lifestyles in low-income students, while also keeping them off the streets, and strengthening them, mentally and physically. If the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Wayne Rooney used soccer as an escape from a bleak reality filled with drugs, violence, and crime, and went on to become some of the finest footballers of their generation, the hope is that these kids will do the same.

In contrast, Street Soccer USA takes a far more layered approach to reaching out to lower-income children. This nonprofit has built soccer teams in the impoverished neighborhoods of 16 U.S. cities. It seeks to engage low-income youth and young adults who are homeless, by using soccer as a way to mentor and empower them. The coaches of Street Soccer USA help these “emerging adults” score their goals off the field too. As case managers, the coaches help at-risk adults with their problems: one coach helped a homeless immigrant sort out immigration issues as he stayed in a shelter. From working with drug addicts, depressed, LGBTQ teens, and homeless immigrants, Street Soccer America not only helps at-risk individuals deal with their issues, it gives them a new lease on life, a release from their troubled paths. As Danielle Williams, who had been living on the streets and addicted to meth before becoming introduced to Street Soccer USA, put it: “Technically, it was soccer that got me sober. It was either playing soccer or getting high. I wanted to play soccer.”

In addition, Street Soccer USA’s Park Model program installs low-maintenance, yet high-quality soccer courts and fields in low-income areas. Street Soccer USA brings soccer to kids 6-18 years old, as well as to special needs communities, from homeless adults to recovering addicts. Focusing on the 33% of American youth who are living below the poverty line and have graduation rates between 55-65%, Street Soccer USA is just one of many nonprofits that have successfully reached out to at-risk youth and empowered them through the game of soccer.

The U.S. Soccer Foundation is also undertaking limited efforts to extend soccer’s reach to low-income communities. USSF’s Passback program collects and redistributes soccer equipment to children in underserved communities. People can both donate their gently used or new gear, as well as request equipment for their soccer program for low-income students. But USSF can and should do more.  As U.S. Soccer sits on a financial surplus in the region of $130 million, the decision-makers are still unsure of the best way to spend the money. Some urge for the construction of a new, state-of-the-art training center, one that could rival Italy’s Coverciano or France’s Clairfontaine, but one that would eat up a sizable chunk of the surplus. U.S. Soccer would be better off resisting the urge for a shiny new training ground, and instead, put their heads together, building upon the successes of the non-profit organizations discussed above, and find a way to make organized soccer cheaper and more accessible to low-income communities. In May 2017, U.S. Soccer introduced the “Innovate to Grow Fund,” which asked its members to come up with innovative programs to stimulate soccer growth. The program granted up to $3 million in funding to 13 recipients in 12 states, from “Discover Soccer Project” in Missouri to Albuquerque Middle School Development League in New Mexico.

While the fund is a good start, it isn’t enough, and it barely makes a splash in the bucket of USSF’s surplus. We know that organized soccer in America has been a rich kids’ sport, we know that we are failing to realize the potential of American soccer, as U.S. soccer’s excessively expensive pay-to-play model prevents potential fans and footballers from playing the sport in their youth. We know that we have to make soccer cheaper to play and more accessible to children of all income levels; the question is how. Supplying nonprofits such as Street Soccer America and America SCORES with greater funding would allow them to access more low-income children and empower them to become better students, better players, and better citizens. Above all, there needs to be a coordinated effort among all groups—local, national, nonprofit, corporate—in order to make American soccer cheaper and available to everyone.

In summary, to build a stronger fan base, to increase viewership, and overall to increase the popularity of soccer as a spectator sport in the U.S. — and to attempt to make up for the fallout from the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — the U.S. needs to increase player participation in soccer at all income levels, not just at the upper socio-economic levels.  The work of the organizations described above is an important step toward achieving these goals, and the USSF should recognize and support these efforts to make up for the fallout from the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and to prepare for 2026.

By: Zach Lowy

Photo: Ashley Allen/Getty