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American Youth Soccer: The Pay for Play Dilemma

By Antony Penna, 04/24/20, 11:15PM CDT


Is there a better system than the current model? what do the rest of the world do?

American Youth Soccer: The Pay for Play Dilemma


Two years have now passed since the FIFA Russian World Cup, a tournament that the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) failed to qualify for, through a bad luck goal that should have been disallowed (maybe a case for the relevance of VAR? but that’s for another discussion). The World cup qualifying campaign was consistently dogged by media outlets and the US federation complaining or having excuses about refereeing decisions and alike, this has been the first time the USMNT have failed to qualify for the FIFA world cup since Mexico 1986. Other notable nations who have failed to qualify, England 1994 (USA World Cup, 2008 European Championship), France (World Cup 1990 Italy, World Cup 1994 USA, Holland (world cup Russia 2018, European Championships 2016, Korea World Cup 2002), can all be accused of making excuses for qualifying failures, The Irish most certainly the hardest done by through French striker Thierry Henry’s hand ball goal! The previous list could also be argued that the teams qualifying path is through the much more difficult European groups (UEFA) whereas, arguably other than Oceania, the CONCACAF qualifying group is one of the easiest to progress through.

As with major footballing (soccer) countries failing to make a major competition, (Especially if they are considered one of the top teams in the world and are expected to progress) the inevitable post mortem reasons as to why they failed to qualify are published by everyone that has even a slight interest in football.

In the case of the United States, many well-known players and celebrities all condemned the Pay-Per-Play or Pay-to-Play system currently in place for youth soccer, as the main hurdle or barrier for US National team’s hopes to compete with top European or South American Countries (Hope Solo [5], Ivan Ibrahimović [6]).

AYSO, one of the youth soccer organizations, has 175,000 registered players just in Southern California and the organization estimates 3.7 million kids are playing some type of soccer nationwide. If accurate, that’s like the combined population of Iceland and Uruguay, both of which qualified for the last World Cup. [2]

So what is pay per play? And why is it been blamed as a detriment to the success of the USMNT?

Pay-for-play, or pay-to-play, is the nomenclature for the current youth soccer system we have here in America. The system requires players to pay a fee to play for a team that is effectively  competitive in nature. Throughout the many markets of America, these teams can be known as, Competitive soccer, travel soccer, select soccer and classic soccer teams. All terms refer to the same type of team, a team that has either tryouts, players scouted or players selected to play against similarly created teams.

Pay per play fees are also as wildly contrasting as the color of the team’s uniforms! So why the differing costs? It’s related to how the differing markets soccer culture was created. An article summed up the cost of youth soccer these days as outrageous.

“Borge’s $1,395 team is a bargain compared to many travel programs where the base fee is $3,000 a year. And yet two of her friends are paying more than that for their kids in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Across the  Potomac River, in Maryland, parents can pay up to $12,000 a year on soccer after
adding the cost of travel to out-of-state  tournaments”. [3]

Working around the USA in the youth soccer scene for the past 20 years it’s competitive soccer in the North Texas region as well as South Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas that I deal with in an administrative, club director and coach role. Each market has different school sports calendars, competitive playing calendars, different types of organizations, prefer different State or national youth governing bodies (all youth governing bodies fall under the US Soccer Federation governing body, but each youth soccer governing body have their own by-laws, can sanction leagues under their banner, sanction tournaments and of course the bread maker of registering each player, staff and volunteers for a fee), these organizations are constructed differently. The biggest differences between USYSA and US Club Soccer is simply in the construction of their administration. USYSA uses State Soccer Associations, and those State Soccer Organizations have member Soccer  Associations (typically identified by a city or region), US Club Soccer has a more direct  association by having clubs and teams as the immediate membership.

In North Texas, USYSA is the main governing body for recreational and competitive play. To play in recreational soccer teams are typically drafted together, coaches must have players play 50% game time and players are registered and committed for a season at a time. This type of soccer can cost an individual between $60-$120 per season per athlete (Seasons are fall and spring). Recreational associations vary in size dependent on the city population that they are within, have mostly if not all volunteer board members, commissioners, coaches and game day or event volunteer management. In fact, most of these soccer associations only pay the city a small fee for field use, pay athlete registration once a year, pay referees and referee assignors at their posted fees.

There are a few larger associations that pay office staff and  expenditures related to having an office. Soccer Associations can also register competitive teams that participate in USYSA  sanctioned leagues. Competitive soccer in North Texas is big! Just look at any given soccer complex or field and for at least 48 weeks of the year they will be buzzing with young athletes and teams competing in leagues or tournaments.

In each market competitive clubs differ wildly, in construction, operation, philosophies, cost, leagues available, paid coaching and volunteer coaching, the list goes on. Pay per play fees for each competitive organization are heavily dependent on many factors:

  • Size of club. Some clubs are a coach or two that coach more than one team. Others have 20 or more coaches, coaching multiple teams.
  • Practice fields. Try and find fields to practice on that hopefully have lights for the winter months for less than $75 an hour!
  •  Some club coaches volunteer their time as they have income from a 9-5 job to pay their bills.
  • Clubs born out of a recreational soccer association are typically able to use the associations’ fields for practice, recruitment, equipment (goals etc), they are primarily volunteer based and utilize association’s tax filings and responsibilities each year. They are usually part of the Recreational soccer board as well.
  • The mid-size clubs have probably had to build fields to play and practice on, or at least pay to rent fields for 5 days a week 48 weeks a year. All the costs associated with keeping grass green and free from weeds, facility maintenance, bills for lights, office expenses, office staff, marketing, equipment purchases, maintenance and replacements, 3rd party liability insurance, tax filing responsibilities and tax attorneys, payroll taxes, paying coaches and the list continues.
  • The very large clubs or super clubs who compete at the very top of youth soccer (Developmental Academy, DA) have travel, facility requirements and league standards, continual staff training commitments, required to invest in external company technology, systems, and applications, multiple locations to play league games, etc.


So where does all this funding come from? Not US Soccer, Not the governing state level bodies, maybe some from sponsorship and partnerships but in this day and age sponsorships without reasonable ROI for the funder is no longer a viable option, therefore, budgets are met by the paying player.

As a consumer, what should be expected from a pay per play model?

In the biggest sense of the word, value for money. What one parent considers value for money may certainly not be for another.

What should be expected from a pay to play model?:

  • Professional coaches with sound knowledge of the game for the level that they coach at.
  • Coaches that continue to improve their knowledge and understanding of the game through CPD and licensing programs.
  • Clubs with easily accessible playing, coaching, and club philosophies.
  • Club definition of their style of play, how is it implemented  throughout their coaching staff?
  • Clubs with a pathway for players to aspire too, playing levels that

challenge players throughout their journey.

  • Additional programs to satisfy players’ weaker parts of the game.
  • Opportunities to gain exposure to college programs, higher level of play, and national competitions for those teams requiring a  pathway.


So is there a pay per play model elsewhere in the world?

There are always costs associated with playing sports or other pastimes, both indirect and direct costs. Growing up as a kid in the UK, direct costs such as paying “subs” on a weekly basis to cover washing of the “kit” (uniforms) and usually a task for an unfortunate mum for the week (especially when our playing surfaces were more mud than grass!), player registration costs and maybe a league fee. Indirect costs include parents travel expenses, playing equipment etc. Other costs for those parents that are more invested can be private skills trainers, camps, center of excellence's and more. These expenses do not change from where I played in England to players I coach here in Texas.

At the grassroots level in England, you’re more likely to have volunteer coaches who have full time jobs as their main source of income. You could be lucky (as I was) and have a very good coach with past experiences as a coach and willing to donate his/her time for the players and the team.

The single biggest issue with grassroots soccer in England is the investment cost for coaches to complete coaching licenses against the income generated from actually coaching, and trying to get enough hours to meet their monthly living expenses. So many past coaches I have worked with now have a completely different vocation through needing a steady and reasonable salary.
There are opportunities for coaches starting out to work for local professional clubs within their catchment area. This type of work is with the clubs community programs, however, the actual amount of time you can get would be after school Monday through Friday and maybe some school holidays programs. Hourly wages can be £10 ($15) an hour. 2 -3 hours a day (depending on schools or facilities having lights) 5 days a week may equate to 10-15 hours a week of work (150GBP $200) max. This isn’t a full time job but more of an extra income gig. In reality the hours available can be far less in school term time, and if you’re getting 5 days a week of 3 hours, your very lucky. Most coaches will grab a couple of hours here and there, incorporate travel to the facility, unsociable hours and you can see why it may be a side gig with hopes of developing into more.

There are full time positions available in UK professional club academies, but you would need UEFA Youth License or UEFA B as a minimum to work, that means more community work to gain  experience, more money invested in licensing that would take you a good amount of time to repay your investment.

Having a play for play system in the UK as well as other countries may help in having more full time coaches who can put more time into their coaching, personal improvement and dedication to the teams they are coaching. Coaches who have full time jobs working until 5pm and then coaching by 6pm, are they really putting the necessary time into planning, and the coaching processes?

Youth clubs in countries other than the US that are lucky enough to have a youth player they have developed make a professional team, that professional club is required to make a compensation payment to the youth club for the cost of developing the player. This helps smaller clubs and youth clubs to reinvest into their coaching staff, infrastructure and other costs involved in developing players, which, therein lies the issue with our pay per play model, Development.

Coaching in America is getting better. There are clubs with dedicated departments or resources in coaching development. Clubs dedicated to improving their facilities and equipment for safer environments for players to develop.

Infrastructure in place so that as players improve, there are suitable levels of play opportunities for them to compete in. The US Soccer federation has recently gone through a modified game format and team age construction of teams (calendar age creation of teams, there are of course other inherent issues with this changes, but that’s also for another time). But all of that won’t matter if we can’t develop players properly. The issue is with the need to win, the parents desire to win and the need for coaches to re-sign the players the next contract year to keep a job and salary.

“A rich, white kid sport,” as former U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo explained it [6]. Speak to any youth soccer coach at any level and they will tell you that any talented player of any ethnic background will play in this pay for play model.

Talent identification is a subject for all countries and has its flaws, Dado Prso, Geoff Horsfield and Jay DeMerrit, to name a few, so with the natural case of kids falling through the talent gap, those that are from a situation of not being able to cover the soccer fees, are almost certainly not excluded from playing for a team. It could be argued in the past that through the process of being drafted to major league sports and the need to go to college that could be where the numbers drop and leave Hope’s statement as the real truth to her meaning.

Here’s a story about diversity in American soccer and, I would imagine, most youth sports. A few years ago, the head of Washington Youth Soccer watched a 15-year-old girl from a lower-income community south of Seattle play in the town’s league. Her family was from Mexico. She played soccer with her older brothers who loved soccer. She had developed tremendous skill by playing with them. She was offered a place on an Olympic Development Program team that had a tournament in Arizona scouted by college coaches. Her family had little money so a sponsor was found to cover her for the trip.[3]

The girl played brilliantly and was the center of attention by college coaches. She received plenty of offers even as a sophomore. However, on returning home her father stopped her from playing soccer. Her dad was undocumented, and feared if she became a college player, the government would find out and have him deported. The league never saw her again, thinking more in depth about this story, there are certainly concerns if she was to continue playing. What if she was injured in a game, had a concussion, broke a bone? Who was taking her to the hospital, would her parents even allow her to go to hospital, does she have insurance? Who will pay the bill? Things are taken for granted in the middle and upper class families. Could this give us an insight to Hopes statement?

In conclusion, is the pay per play model in America the reason for the USMNT’s failure at major tournament qualifier or even at the tournament itself?

No, it’s not.

As mentioned there have been major soccer/footballing powerhouse nations that have failed to make international tournaments, England, Holland, Italy and the list continues.
The issue is how the pay per play model is funded. Parents are asked to cover the budget for the operating costs of the club which includes everything listed in the previous paragraphs. However, the clubs that we need the most help from are the same clubs that compete with local clubs. MLS clubs business models are to have youth teams, and rightly so. But, are MLS youth teams, who compete in the grassroots leagues with other local clubs, providing the right vision?

If youth MLS clubs competed in the ECNL, and DA leagues as well as the USL leagues only, and not in the local grassroots leagues I believe that the outcomes could be dramatic. This would create a need to work with community clubs in a more positive way, collaborating with local clubs to create a players pathway to the professional club team. Ultimately, if a player was recruited to play USL for an MLS franchise from a local club, that club would be a desired destination for parents looking for a program that  develops players for the next level [1].

A knock-on effect would see more local clubs encouraging their families to watch MLS games where local players are playing, and the focus of local clubs to be more concerned with development and not winning at all costs so they can resign the players for the next season.

To help with how the pay per play model is funded, MLS clubs would compensate the community club who invested time, money and sweat equity. Unfortunately, this has been taken to the US courts recently by a couple of youth clubs, who saw no success in solidarity payments becoming a reality, even a training compensation could help. That leaves youth clubs having to maintain their status by advertising as a winning club/team. What’s wrong with that? Well, everything. We still have to instill winning attitudes for young players, as it’s a game and the game is measured by an outcome, more goals for one team than the other. But in the pay per play model, we have player contracts for 12 months, parents being sold on winning teams and quality leagues to play in. So what happens when the team doesn’t win? That team will certainly break up on the next contract cycle, therefore leaving the coach without a team and a job.

If winning is the main messaging then teams need to win games or face the reality of losing players, pretty simple really. Teams that communicate dedication to player development and lose every game, may also lose their players. Who wants to lose all the time? Clubs that can consistently produce players who are selected to play for an MLS club team or equivalent will almost definitely be rewarded by more coaches and players wanting to be a part of their success in developing players. Those clubs will be marketing that their club playing philosophy, their coaches, and programs are the ones for prospective players to join as they provide players to professional clubs on a consistent basis. A bye product, the same club will promote their players to buy tickets to watch alumni play games. A win-win situation.

So for Ibrahimović (and others) to voice an opinion (which they are entitled to) on the cost to play here, he doesn’t understand the implications. He certainly wouldn’t play for free, his agent will demand the best contract he can get. But would he also think about the fan who pays the ticket price to help the club pay his salary? Why not have people come watch for free? so if we aren’t
prepared to compensate coaches for their time, we can’t be expected for them to invest in themselves and be the best coach they can be. Compensation means they can afford to enroll in coaching education, ultimately helping improve your future youth players, not wanting to compensate clubs that have to maintain support staff, maintain facilities, buy equipment, provide programs for community youth and anything else it needs in order to “develop” the next generation of USMNT or USWNT players, then a change is needed, but with MLS clubs business models having youth setups as a major source of revenue, and no other way of generating income for youth organizations to cover its bills, it’s not
going to happen anytime soon.

So knowing that the pay to play system isn’t going to go away, pick you next child’s team carefully, what are you and your player’s expectations? Do you want a place where your player can develop through knowledgeable, quality of coaching and support staff who invest time in their own learning? Or are you looking for a place to play competitively on a budget? Either is your definition of value for a pay per play system.

[1] The US men’s National team and the FC Dallas academy problem, Buzz Carrick, 2017
[2] Here’s how screwed up the state of US Soccer is right now, LA Times August 4 2018, Baxter, Kevin

[3] Its only working for the white kids: America’s soccer diversity problem. The Guardian Les Carpenter 2016

Antony Penna has coached professionally for over 26 years. He has coached in the UK and USA in the professional game and the youth game. Antony holds UEFA B license and USSF licenses, LaLiga license and more. He currently is the Technical Director for Kernow Storm FC, Director of Soccer operations for Kernow Storm FC and Technical director for City FC elite academy. Both clubs have teams that play in the national leagues, regional leagues and local leagues. Antony has given presentations and lectures to the El Salvador national team coaching staff, provides coaching training sessions for the clubs he directs, and has written a coaching manual for Storm FC. He resides in Dallas, Texas his home for 16 years.