The youth soccer industry can be a tough one to navigate. 

Unlike anywhere else in the world, there are comparably less ‘top-level’ organizations despite the country boasting more registered youth soccer players than many of the world’s leading soccer nations. There are multiple arguments as to the reason for this with many laying the blame with US Soccer/MLS and the almost unique closed market that makes up the US Soccer pyramid.  

Regardless of the reason, the lack of professional organizations has left local clubs trying to fill the void and provide an environment which will allow young players to chase their goals– whether that be a college scholarship or a professional contract. The issue is that intertwined with those hungry for success in the soccer world, are those who are good at the sport and want to satisfy their competitive nature but aren’t necessarily chasing the same dreams. 

Therefore, organizations must consider differing expectations and choose to prioritize those which reflect their values and goals as a club. Before a parent chooses which club to send their young player to, it’s important to consider a number of factors to ensure that their experience matches the expectations they set for themselves.

Geography

Most of us can agree, sitting in a car for long periods of time isn’t fun. For players or parents! 

Before choosing a club, it’s important to consider the required travel– for practices, games, and tournaments. Ultimately, the goal of youth sport is to promote a healthy lifestyle, and when a 2-hour car ride each way is attached on a school night, the desire to remain active forever may be tarnished.  

Of course, there are instances which require a significant sacrifice of time and travel. And for some, that extended travel isn’t as much a dread. So, it’s important to consider the effects of signing up for a club which geographically puts this strain on both the athlete and their parents/guardians.

Staying local, regardless of your player’s ability can help to promote healthy competition between local organizations, thus diminishing the need for regional travel to compete. It can also help to keep your player engaged with the game through representing a local organization whilst creating social bonds with others from similar locations.  

Questions to consider: 

  • How far would I need to travel to attend training and games?  
  • Are there clubs closer to me geographically?  
  • Can clubs closer to me provide the necessary quality of teammates and coaches for my player?

Goals

When setting out on your soccer journey, it’s of paramount importance to assess and set your own personal goals. Is it your player’s dream to play at the top level or is it to engage on more of a social level whilst fostering a lifelong passion for the game which will pass beyond the limits of youth soccer?  

To make it to the top, whether that be playing professionally or earning a spot at a Division 1 college, a huge sacrifice is needed from the individual and family. Not only in terms of commitment to a club, but also the time commitment to honing skills through individual practice and free play.  

Before you begin, both the player and the parent need to understand what it takes to make it at the highest levels and then set goals accordingly. If this is the goal then your player needs to play and train with like-minded individuals whilst receiving the necessary support from their club.  

However, the majority of youth players either aren’t setting their sights firmly on the top or don’t possess the drive and determination needed.  And that’s OK!!! It then becomes important to find a club which will foster a love for the game, develop your player’s skills and create a social environment which will keep your player healthy and involved in soccer for life.  

There is always the chance that your player’s goals will change and they have different experiences, so before making your decision, honestly define your goals and ensure you/your player understand what that goal means at that moment in time. Whether that be professional soccer, playing in high school, or lifelong participation, you can then find the right fit for you. 

Questions to consider: 

  • What is my player’s goal for soccer?  
  • Does the club provide the necessary resources and support for my player to achieve his/her goal?  
  • Does my player’s work ethic and behavior match their goals?  

Culture

As stated, National Governing Bodies in sport are in agreement that the main goal of youth sport is to promote an active, healthy lifestyle. Remaining passionate about soccer (or any sport) beyond 18 years old is a great way to achieve this goal as a passionate person will look to stay involved through playing (competitively or socially), coaching or spectating. In fact, becoming a fan of professional teams can be a vital ingredient in developing a lifelong passion and is something the club should be fostering.

Furthermore, youth soccer can play a huge role in defining the person. Consider whether the club promotes the holistic development of your athlete through standards, values and empathy. Is this information available to you? Again, your goals will help to define which values are most important to you, and which culture is the best fit for your player.   

Questions to consider: 

  • What is that club doing to foster a love for the game in my player? 
  • Are the staff passionate about the game? 
  • Do they create a positive environment which allows my player to express themselves and enjoy what they are doing? 
  • Does the club offer anything that will keep my player engaged with soccer beyond their youth? 
  • What does the club do to make players aware of the global obsession with our sport? 

Structure

Before choosing your club, investigate the structure of the club to ensure that they can meet your expectations. A proficient organization will have a leadership structure which can provide support from top to bottom.

 In US soccer terms, there is a traditional format in which a coach will be placed with random teams, aiming to keep club members content and their money coming in. All across the world, clubs are implementing a new structure which takes the pressure off the individual coach – still holding them accountable for their performance, however providing additional support to the coach, players, and parents through the leadership structure. 

 

 

 

Questions to consider: 

  • Will my player receive the appropriate support from the immediate coaching staff and club management?  
  • Is my player’s coach a good fit for their age/gender?  
  • Are there measures in place to ensure constant reflection of the club’s staff and processes?  
  • How does the club make decisions on a general level, which may affect my player? Is there a board or does the club allow those at the top to make decisions?  

Winning vs Development 

This debate has been rumbling on for years. The majority of clubs all state that development is their main priority, yet there are those who will transparently announce that they chase victories and trophies. 

A ‘trophy first’ club will likely display a number of key indicators. During games, the ball may spend a lot of time in the air, being played long as their players look to prey on opposition mistakes as close to their goal as possible. Squad rotation may include substitutes only playing 5 or so minutes per half. Player recruitment may focus on athleticism and maturity over technical ability which heavy emphasis will be placed upon the importance of the tryout period.  

In contrast, a ‘development first’ club will look to employ a game strategy that encourages players to keep the ball on the floor, maximizing the number of situations a player will face during a game. They likely look to retain as many players as possible year over year whilst recruiting, and they seek to understand more about the player than their current ability. i.e. Where have they come from; where are they maturationally?  

Questions to consider: 

  • What matters most to you – Accolades or developing skills? 
  • How does the club find the balance between winning and development? 
  • How does the club back up their stance with their product? 

Soccer!

Amazingly, the soccer piece is also important. We believe that there is no one ‘right’ way to play the game. Everyone has their own ideas on how best to play whether that be because of the players at their disposal, the club/coach’s goals, the level of play, the age group, etc, etc.

When watching a club, you should be able to identify their style of play regardless of the team you’re watching. So when evaluating a fit, if you were to take the jersey off, would you still know what club you were watching? If not, this is likely more of a ‘rent-a-shirt’ agency. 

Therefore, before choosing your club, it’s important to understand what to expect when you watch them play:

Questions to consider: 

  • Does the club have a playing philosophy which is mandated throughout the club? Or does each individual coach have the freedom to instruct their players as they see fit?  How is this set?  
  • Is my player being given the opportunity to develop as an individual or does the team come first?  
  • If you asked the club/coach, could they clearly define what they are trying to do and why they are trying to do it?  

When considering your options, there are a number of ways to find pertinent information.  

  1. Speak to staff in management positions at the club(s) you are considering. The Director of Coaching, or in our case Phase leaders, should be able to give you all the information you require.  
  2. Speak to the coach of the team you are considering. Whilst this coach may offer the same information as the director in terms of clubwide policies, you may also be able to learn about the coach’s personality and coaching style.
  3. Search through the club website. You should be able to find most if not all relevant information from staff to club philosophy and values.  
  4. Speak to current members of the club. Those who have been with a program will be able to let you know whether the club does what they publicly say! 

Ultimately, there will always be a degree of trial and error when choosing a club as the proof is always in the product. However, doing your research to find the club which will best cater to the ambitions of your player, will go a long way to ensuring you have a positive experience. 

As stated, each individual player will have different goals and will be looking for different things. This isn’t an attempt to preach what your goals should be, rather highlight that there are different approaches to development and for your players’ journey to be a successful one.


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