Football in America: Pulled up by the AYSO Roots
Newly arrived in the United States I was thoroughly confused why this country lagged so far behind the rest of the footballing world.
I started out coaching my son’s six-year-old AYSO side and was astonished both by the enthusiasm and skill of the kids and the commitment of the parents. They were volunteering as referees, linesmen and women, team parents, ball polisher; whatever was required they were prepared to help out.
Growing up in a solid, secure neighborhood in Essex on the outskirts of London we were lucky to have one or two parents watch our games let alone participate.
Some of these boys were truly gifted. Maybe they weren’t raised steeped in the game as we were, but their athleticism and willingness to learn was faultless.
Then I coached my two daughters’ AYSO sides and, if anything, the standard was even more remarkable. Sure, six and seven year olds the world over are like honey bees to a hive where the ball is concerned but, again, the commitment of entire families was inspiring. Two practices a week were fully attended, often with parents watching as well as offering their help, whether that was picking up cones or collecting stray balls.
Every Tuesday, we’d run down to the end of a pier along the Pacific Ocean where a burger joint would provide free mini-cones for the players and then we’d run back to the field. Such are the joys of a California upbringing.
This was AYSO, which runs an all-inclusive policy to shepherd as many children as possible into soccer irrespective of ability. There is a whole other network of club soccer teams with higher aspirations for the players. How could a nation with such an incredible soccer roots organization not be challenging the football superpowers? It was a question I kept asking myself and anyone else who would listen.
The answer began to dawn on me when my son was a freshman in high school ands the dynamics of his soccer team changed almost overnight. Suddenly the stars of the team, the natural strikers and the athletes, were no longer turning up to practice. Their parents stopped coming. Gradually, they made their excuses and left.
It took me a little while to realize why this was happening. The kids with European or South American parents retained as much enthusiasm as possible for teenagers battling their way through puberty, but the majority of the American kids quit within the space of a few months.
The reason, I was soon to learn, was all about money and about managing expectations.
It’s a simple truism that athletes who are good at soccer are quite likely to be good at American Football, basketball or baseball.
In the United States, education can be prohibitively expensive, but there is a major loophole that sport can lead the way in exploiting – the scholarship.Traditionally, a top high school athlete in the three big US sports – American Football, basketball and baseball – can command a much better scholarship to the grander schools than those offered to soccer standouts.
So perhaps it was only natural for parents, once so keen for their kids to enjoy the soccer experience., to insist they buckle down to a “real” American sport once the going gets tough and real-life decisions are about to be made.
It was a simple fact that as all three of my kids’ teams grew up, the star power waned. Other sports were calling and soccer wasn’t strong enough to repel them.
Parents who grew up considering soccer a second-class sport didn’t believe in its capacity to grow into the beautiful game the rest of the world loved so much. But I sense things are changing.
As flawed as Major League Soccer remains – the dictatorial structure, the predictable league, the us-and-them pay policy and the dearth of historic rivalries – it is growing inexorably in popularity as those kids who both loved soccer and were led away from it by their parents return to support the game.
In a terrific article, the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel, Britain’s sports writer of the year, writes how the Seattle Sounders are proving to be the blueprint for football in the US that could ultimately “see the mighty NFL heading for a fall.”
The Sounders boasted an average attendance last season of 43,734 – which would put them sixth in the English Premier League behind Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Liverpool, and the 27th best supported in the world. These aren’t statistics to sniff at.
With degenerative brain disease becoming a huge problem among retired NFL players and schools becoming increasingly concerned about the health drawbacks of the hard-knock American Football life, Samuel argues that soccer may yet catch fire across the country in a way that has eluded it in the past.
The potential is there; we all know that. The time is coming fast when the best players in the MLS aren’t the over-the-hill superstars looking for a last payday but young, fast, exciting stars at the height of their abilities.
The potential market is immense and the money to be made, a sure fire arbiter of success in the West, is even bigger.
Beckham, Keane, Henri and co have undoubtedly played their part, but the future of American soccer is all about the parents of tomorrow’s superstars. At one time they would have killed off any hopes of a resurgence at the roots but the times are a changing.
All it takes is for these parents to share the belief that soccer has a future as America’s football.
I believe that time may be here. The rest of the world had better watch out.