The financial demands of soccer in the United States are harming the diversity of the sport and holding the national team back

Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesHerculez Gomez playing for the United States Men’s National Team.
  • Business Insider had a chance to speak to a pair of ESPN personalities, including former U.S. World Cup player Herculez Gomez, about the lack of Hispanic-American representation in U.S. Soccer.
  • The financial demands of playing the sport in the U.S., as well as a lack of representation in the federation, has made the game inaccessible to many children of immigrant backgrounds.
  • These kids, who grow up in soccer-mad environments, often have precisely the skills that are missing in so many American players.

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of the growth of soccer in the United States has been immigration from Latin American countries, where soccer is overwhelmingly the sport of choice.

Within U.S. Soccer as a program, Latin-Americans are scantily represented, and it’s a problem that is holding back U.S. Soccer, preventing talented youngsters from being able to inject some much-needed skill into American soccer teams.

“It’s very difficult for young immigrant families to pay to play,” said Herculez Gomez, a Mexican-American soccer player who played for the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2010 World Cup. “Often times these Latin-American kids . . . get overlooked because they don’t have the funds. It’s very much a suburban sport.”

“Listen, I was very fortunate, you could say I did not fall through the cracks because I ended up representing my national team, but if it wasn’t for a benefactor that we had who cut out a $US25,000 check every year so we didn’t have to pay for anything and I had a coach who would drive 45 minutes out of his way to and from practice I wouldn’t have had these opportunities, I wouldn’t have gone as far as I did, I wouldn’t have played club soccer . . . I wouldn’t have opportunity [within] the U.S. Soccer system. These opportunities are scarce,” Gomez said.

In most of the world, from Argentina to Germany, professional club academies train young kids in soccer for free, seeing them as potential contributors to a future club first team (or a player who could be sold to another club). In America, however, many club teams, even academies owned and operated by MLS clubs, still require youth players and their families to pay for the opportunity to be a part of the club team.

Sebastian Salazar is an ESPN media personality, who as youth player spent time at the D.C. United academy as well as other top club teams when he was younger.

“I played for the best club team in Virginia, and in Maryland, and in both cases, on the top four teams, I was the only Hispanic kid,” Salazar said, before insisting that he was far from the best player of Hispanic background in the D.C. area.

Herculez Gomez Landon Donovan 2010 World CupPhil Cole/Getty ImagesGomez playing in the 2010 World Cup, here appearing alongside Landon Donovan.

“Why did I get to play at those levels? Because my parents were from the suburbs . . . because they could afford it.”

This is not just high-minded concern about diversity, although a U.S. national team that more closely mirrors the country in its racial multitudes is undoubtedly an admirable goal in and of itself. Children with Latin-American backgrounds are more likely to grow up living and breathing soccer, and thus developing the crucial skills that the U.S. teams so often lack.

“I grew up, because my Mum was Mexican, with a [soccer] ball in the house,” Salazar said. “So we’re constantly touching a ball. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, I also grew up in the suburbs, so maybe the other kids in my neighbourhood didn’t always play soccer, so I didn’t touch the ball as much as maybe a kid .. . who has 10 or 20 other people who are touching the ball. So that kid at eight or nine-years-old already has a huge advantage over me because he’s taken thousands of touches more.”

Touch is the most important skill in soccer, it’s what makes Leo Messi such a transcendent talent, and it’s also the skills U.S. players most sorely lack. Until U.S. Soccer can consistently field rosters full of players with excellent touch, the country will always be on the outside of the sport’s elite.

“Touch comes early. And if you don’t get touch early, it’s really tough to catch up on that,” Salazar said.

As far as solutions to this problem go, there is no silver bullet solution to this problem, but both Salazar and Gomez expressed to Business Insider a belief that the money is there in U.S. Soccer to make the game more accessible to more kids.

“It would be very difficult to get rid of pay-to-play, I understand this,” Gomez said. Still, he said that U.S. Soccer has turned a profit in recent years and that there should be some way the federation could put those funds to good use to expand access to the game, and open the door for more potential world-class players to break into the U.S. Soccer system.

For Salazar, one remedy was obvious.

“MLS Academies should be free,” he said, citing the expansion fees the league is set to charge, which have been reported as $US150 million, as evidence that MLS has the means to ensure all of its academies are free.

“We’re making money now, let’s give some back,” he said.

But therein lies one of the rubs. U.S. Soccer is primarily a business enterprise, operated by businessmen to make a profit.

“At this level, we have people within the United States who make decisions based off financial reasons, or for other types of reasons that aren’t sporting,” Gomez said.

Another problem is that U.S. Soccer needs more representation within its organizational ranks.

“At the highest levels of U.S.S.F., there’s not enough representation for Hispanic, Latino-Americans,” Salazar said. “It’s also representation in terms of coaching. If you look at youth national team coaching, there’s not enough representation, if you compare it to the amount of kids who are actually playing.”

These are not small or simple changes, and unfortunately, U.S. Soccer is an organisation that appears resistant to change. But expanding the game so that it reaches kids of all backgrounds and making the national team more representative is utterly essential if the United States is to have a national team that is both more quintessentially American and more successful on the soccer field.

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