Finding an “a la carte” option to get more kids in soccer

How do you get more kids playing youth soccer? How do you encourage the good players to get into programs that help them maximize their potential? How do they do it in France?

For reference, check three Soccer America articles:

Bondy and the French grassroots system: Kids routinely play after school. Then they have a cheap-ish (just under $200) multisport club staffed by adult facilitators and some coaches. Much of the funding comes from a source we generally don’t have available in the USA — the government.

Secrets to the French soccer revolution: Among the noteworthy elements here — 35 French pro clubs have full-fledged academies, but kids rarely leave their home clubs before age 16.

AYSO’s Mike Hoyer: Youth soccer needs options between entry level and full travel/club commitment: He speaks in mostly vague terms aside from plugging two AYSO programs and tossing in an interesting points — kids’ time is being taken up not just by video games and other activities, but by homework.

That may seem like an odd point, but when you see kids go into high school, it’s startling to see how much is piled up. Parents have been fed metrics such as the Washington Post Challenge Index, which rewards schools for getting kids into as many intense AP courses as possible. We’re starting to see some pushback on the idea that cramming for the equivalent of 3-4 bar exams every year is the best use of teenagers’ time, and it’s about time. But that’s another rant.

The AYSO programs Hoyer mentions, AYSO Extra and AYSO United, are designed to give intermediate players more options. You’ll see the occasional AYSO program operatinIg a travel team in your local league. That’s a nice rec/travel hybrid, and we could use more creative solutions like that.

But I see ways to build on that, some of which are antithetical to the AYSO ethos of forming new teams each season for the sake of balance. I’ve kicked around some of these ideas for a few years. Others are relatively new.

No full-time travel before age 12. I’ve written about this for a while. It doesn’t rule out elite professional training and frequent “All-Star” games. It leaves open the possibility of “a la carte” models in which any interested families can get professional training and be sorted into groups that give them challenging games. It lets kids play with their neighbors and friends, as they do at Ajax and other clubs, while also giving them part-time options for advanced play with those of similar ability and aptitude. It rules out forming U11 leagues in which kids are traveling 200 miles for a league game. It also forces club’s technical staffs to look at kids who aren’t on the “A” teams.

Rec soccer that is free-play only. No commitment needed. Want to come play on Friday night or Saturday afternoon? OK — sign up, pay $10, and we’ll bring you out to a big field where we’ve organized many small-sided games and can sort players so they’re not totally overmatched or totally dominant. Maybe we’ll do the same in neighborhoods that just have one futsal court, and we’ll say beginners play at 2, slightly advanced players at 3, and you can scrimmage with our travel players at 4. For many players, this might be all they do. For some, it’ll be a gateway to a more “organized” program.

Above U12, drop the “rec”/”travel” distinction and form pyramids instead. I’ve seen some clubs that are starting to do this. At my coaching-license course this weekend, I met several parent coaches who are leading teams that are moving up from the local “developmental” travel league to the league that used to be the big dog before all these “elite” leagues formed. (Some of those “elite” leagues are, of course, not elite. I can’t understand parents who pay for their kids to be on C teams that travel out of state for “elite” league games.)

Instead of imposing tiers on teams — you’re “travel,” you’re not — just let the teams sort themselves out. If your team is dominating its “rec” league, let it move up to the next level. If your team is overmatched in “travel,” move down. Sure, professional coaches might not go for this because parents will learn that they’ve been paying $2,000/year only to find that their U14 kids aren’t at the level of the local “rec” kids. But that’ll force more change. Eventually, the tiers will be more seamless. The top teams may fire professional coaches. Lower-tier teams will stick with parents. (Though, frankly, parent coaches are often better.) Ideally, clubs will offer professional training for all, then offer a mix of pro and parent coaches on gamedays.

Along these lines …

Let teams stay together. Here’s where a well-intentioned AYSO philosophy backfires. A lot of kids, particularly those who aren’t chasing elite status, want to play with their friends. AYSO breaks up teams in the name of parity, which makes sense. But if you have a pyramid with many levels, you’ll get parity anyway.

More fluid exchanges between club teams. This might sound like the opposite of the previous point. But it’s all about giving kids options and opportunities. Clubs should always have the opportunity to let a kid try a more advanced level, even if just for a game or two. And leagues should allow it. Our local Northern Virginia “rec” league disqualifies players if they play a “travel” game just once during the season, which is utterly ridiculous.

Options. Opportunities. Maybe then we won’t lose so many kids.



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