In a vast country, how do you make sure everyone has an opportunity to go as far as he or she can go in soccer?
Not an easy question. Today, a lot of the focus is on inner cities, where several organizations are working to set up futsal courts and programs.
But we can’t forget smaller towns, either. Meet Chris Kessell, a passionate advocate (and someone who doesn’t just talk about it but also gets out and does it) for West Virginians:
Every community big and small deserves the ability to dream. Every child in this country who loves the sport deserves the ability to be able to dream about their place in the sport. Continue to speak up for lost and forgotten communities in this nation and advocate for #ProRelForUSA and #ReformUSSF.
It’s tough to argue with people who are doing such good work. But this argument isn’t about the work or the intentions. It’s about the overarching solutions. Pro/rel has long been called the “third rail” of American soccer, and my attempt to reset the conversation earlier this year went nowhere.
And so, with the utmost respect for Chris’ work, I’ll suggest the following:
The English system wouldn’t give these kids much of a dream. A modified pro/rel system may help, but even if that happens, we’ll need some creative programs to reach kids like the ones Chris is describing.
By “English system,” I mean a straight up-and-down ladder. That’s what England has in its first five tiers of soccer. Only then does it start to resemble a pyramid.
We can’t reasonably ask a fourth-division team to travel cross-country. And I think most people get that. So a lot of the plans I’ve tossed out for discussion have a much wider base — a national top tier, a West and East region in tier two, then tons and tons of D3 teams.
Here’s the bottom line: We want to create opportunity.
And England demonstrates that a healthy pro system doesn’t necessarily mean every club has a thriving academy. See this post, which is generally about the “pros” of pro/rel but also gets into the English situation.
Finally, the pro-affiliated academy system can’t reach everyone. The biggest club in Cornwall appears to be Truro City, which is in the National League South — England’s sixth tier. It’s in a town of about 21,000 people, not far from other towns about that size. The closest fully professional club is Plymouth Argyle, which can be reached in 71 minutes if you live at the train station. After that, it’s Exeter, then you have to go considerably farther. If you live farther west than Truro — say, Penzance, which also has about 21,000 people — it’s longer. Morgantown (WV) is actually closer to a pro club (Pittsburgh Riverhounds), even in a country that will likely never have the saturation of pro clubs that a small, football-mad country like England has.
So let’s consider options:
- An English-style pro-rel ladder would likely put Morgantown in a sixth tier with little chance of going much higher.
- A pyramid with no relegation from the third tier (or fourth, if we suddenly get hundreds of clubs) would ensure Morgantown has a stable pro club.
- An NCAA-style system would mean Morgantown could be one of hundreds of “D1” clubs that can play for a national championship in any given year. No need to climb rung by rung. If they suddenly have a bunch of really good players, they can make a Butler-style run to the national final. (Yes, the Open Cup does sort of the same thing but not quite.)
- German-style training centers in every metro area with a traffic light would be great. Germany realized its clubs can’t find and develop everyone, so the federation does more. The USA has a few programs along these lines — traditional ODP, U.S. Club Soccer ID programs, mobile training centers — but we could surely do more.
- High schools. Consider this: The greatest college football player ever, Herschel Walker, came from a town in Georgia that had about 2,500 people at the time. The county had less than 9,000 people. Stretch out over two counties in the “Dublin Micropolitan Statistical Area,” and you might get to 50,000. Herschel was discovered 15 years before anyone knew what the Internet was.
So you can see why I’m skeptical when someone says kids can dream if only they had pro/rel. I’m not saying and I certainly hope I’ve never even implied that I don’t care about kids having that dream. Quite the opposite. I keep coming up with ideas. People keep ignoring them and telling me I’m ignorant.
Yet this is a topic I’ve been tackling in a lot of detail since I left USA TODAY in 2010. I didn’t discuss it much at USA TODAY — I doubt my editors would’ve been interested in a story on it, and I was busy covering soccer along with MMA, Olympic sports, high school sports, poker, horse racing, etc., etc. USA TODAY hasn’t had a full-time soccer writer since Peter Brewington in 2001. (Great, great guy.) They’ve been lucky to have a few people who sneak in some soccer content — not long after I left, former George Mason player Mike Foss came in and revamped their blog, making sure it had plenty of soccer.
Meanwhile, at other news organizations, you’re not going to see much talk about pro/rel. It’s not because people are told not to talk about it. It’s because the idea just isn’t gaining a lot of traction. People talk and talk — see the Chattanooga summit. And yet the UPSL, NPSL, PDL, USL and NISA are all doing their own thing. The UPSL brags about having pro/rel in certain areas — just like most other amateur leagues.
And the idea isn’t gaining a lot of traction because we can’t talk about it without egos and emotion getting in the way.
What can we do to change that?