04/20/2020 2:04 PM
Article By: J Hector Diaz
I have read many articles on the cons and drawbacks of the pay-to-play system. Experts have repeatedly noted that until this system is given the boot, we will be able to join the ranks of top soccer countries and be able to compete for the World Cup. Well, I am here to tell you the pay-to-play is here to stay. It is not bad, and it is not the root of the problem. Experts seem to be missing the real problem. Let me begin by making it clear that the pay-to-play system exists all over the world. I have a number of friends coaching in Italy who have their pay-to-play soccer clubs. I have a friend in Spain who oversees a top local youth club where the parents of the players pay. The United States has been a top competitor at the Olympic Games and most of their athletes have a background in a pay-to-play system. It is standard practice for American parents to fund training for their kids. So why cannot we compete in soccer? We can't compete because of the lack of support for the sport in this country. Yes, we support it, but not enough. And not enough locally.
There are countries in the world the size of California or even smaller that have several professional divisions. Clubs are embedded within the fabric of the community and it is considered a matter of pride to represent one’s team. Clubs like Athletic Bilbao and Club Deportivo Guadalajara have resorted to drastic measures and restricted who can play in their academies to only players from a specific region or country – and their fans have seemed to embrace this approach. Hardly do fans in other countries follow a foreign team more than their local professional team from their youth. Here in the US, we tend to watch international soccer over the local MLS. I understand the quality of the MLS has not been all that impressive, but guess what? It has considerably improved! This is owed largely to local fans that have decided to support their MLS team and enjoy the development of the sport in the US. Due to this, fans now get to experience a top-tier soccer atmosphere at Banc of California Stadium, CenturyLink Field, and other venues, instead of just having to witness them on TV. With that level of support, clubs have started to invest in fully-funded youth academies.
Professional clubs make a sizeable investment in developing their players as they don’t always have the luxury to buy new ones. Allocating resources for the development of existing players tends to be more good value. Naturally, the club doles out money for the development of these players, but what is the source of that money? The fans who support their local professional teams indirectly and directly provide cash to the club. The club than invests the money into their best soccer players in order to keep you and their fan base entertained. This, in turn, produces more cash flow in terms of fan revenue for the club. As such, this support generates enough capital to invest in the development of top players who – regardless of their background - will enjoy open access to the system.
Due to the lack of support, this causes another problem, namely that there are not enough professional divisions with fully-funded youth programs where the best players play for free. In Southern California, which is arguably the most active area for soccer in the country, only has two fully-funded programs managed by professional clubs: LAFC and LA Galaxy's youth program. In Madrid's Metropolitan area, there are seven professional soccer clubs: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Leganes, Getafe, Rayo Vallecano, AD Alcorcón, and CF Fuenlabrada. And other Segunda division B clubs are allowed to have professional players and are semi-professional teams. Now, do you see where we are behind? How many professional organizations do we have in Southern California? Well, we have LA Galaxy and LAFC, but we also have USL's Orange County Soccer Club and San Diego Loyal. In the third division (NISA), we have LA Force, Cal United Strikers, and 1904 FC. Those are seven clubs, but not with youth funded programs. Why? Because of lack of support. The two USL franchises have decided to refrain from building fully-funded elite youth academies as not to anger local soccer leaders. These franchises want as much support as they can procure. As such, if they were to announce the opening of a youth academy, it would cause an uproar amongst the leaders at other local soccer clubs, who, in turn, would not encourage the support of the franchise. On the other hand, if the support came directly from the people who would stick to it regardless of what the directors would say, we would be closer to gaining an equal footing with the rest of the world. Coaches can build excellent training plans, but if they don’t have top talent to execute these, the training just doesn’t cut it.
If your local professional team doesn't have a youth academy, contact them and let them know that they must have a youth development academy. Tell them that you want to support local players and that you will stand beside those that do. Baseball fans do this. They follow the players throughout the minor leagues, and fans adamantly stick up for their local town's Minor League Baseball team. It's your turn to support the local soccer team. The more professional teams there are in this country, the less chances of overlooking and missing out on top talent. The more competition your local soccer academies have from the fully-funded program, the better the product that they will produce. Competition always brings the best out of everyone and despite being an Academy Director at a local youth club, I welcome it. Hey, in some cases, the pay-to-play programs might have to reduce their fees to compete.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a place in the world with a system where everyone plays for free and where the quality is top notch. The real challenge is the lack of fully-funded professional programs. You see - both systems can coexist. They do in the rest of the world, so why can't they here?
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