Soccer, We Have a Problem

Soccer is known worldwide as “the people’s game” and for a time this was true in the United States, with immigrant populations bringing the sport to their new communities. This is no longer the case, with soccer over the past 25-30 years becoming the domain of the well-to-do and fairly well-to-do. Whereas there are still stories now and again of a boy rising out of urban circumstances as a result of involvement in soccer, this has not been the case for girls. The rare instances of it happening usually have been the result of individual beneficence bestowed on a specific player by another family or group of families.

This separation of the game from its most organic arena (the local community/neighborhood) has never been more evident than in the mere fact that so few urban female soccer players play the game at the college level. I came to realize this when building a summer-league team in Buffalo, NY. After searching a wide range of college rosters and finding a talent pool of 45 players, the truth was that not a single player rostered for the 2007 season had graduated from a Buffalo public high school. This was most disappointing and I was sure not just a fluke of location. Having coached at a successful urban high school in Milwaukee and having seen players on my roster go on to play in college (at schools such as Valparaiso, William and Mary, and Marquette), I also felt that there had to be a way to open that door for more players.

So why do so few urban girls play the game beyond high school? This can be attributed to a number of factors. First, most if not all community-based soccer programs (either run through the local recreation/parks department or non-profit organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club) end during the middle school years, as numbers tail off for these organizations and the democratic field of high school soccer nears. Building on that, “city” high school teams are generally snubbed by college coaches in the recruiting process, based almost entirely on its perceived playing level and the general lack of players who participate in “club” soccer outside the prep season. The biggest factor, though, is that the cost and logistics of playing for a well-known and successful soccer club is prohibitive for these players, as transportation to suburban or exurban playing fields might not be available and more pressing needs on the home front price these girls out of the club soccer market.

Can we fix this, and if so how? Much as the United States Soccer Federation has acknowledged that there is a problem in the recruitment, scouting, and development of disadvantaged players on the boys’ side, there has begun to be a conversation about why the women’s game is so “white”, for lack of a better term. Title IX has opened many doors for women and girls to participate in athletics at the high school and college levels, but its main beneficiaries have been by and large middle and upper-class females who would have had opportunities to participate in sport outside the educational system. This is in no way a criticism of the law, as it has brought about numerous successes in the athletic and academic arenas. Instead, it is a realization that those who benefit in the early years after a major piece of legislation is enacted are individuals and groups that were just on the outside of inclusion prior to it.

In Milwaukee, this is a major problem and the numbers reflect it. In 2011, only five graduates of Milwaukee Public Schools were on college rosters, with all of them playing in the greater Milwaukee area and all but one at Division III private institutions (the fifth was playing at UW-Parkside, a Division II school). In 2010, it was five as well, with two of those not returning for 2011. The numbers are pretty similar for 2009, 2008, and 2007 (four or five, with only one or two of them playing beyond their first collegiate season). These “one-and-dones” are quite disturbing for me, as there doesn’t seem to be an answer as to why it is so prevalent amongst our area’s players. Lest you think it’s just “city” players that either drop out or are run off by college coaches, two graduates of Divine Savior Holy Angels (state champions in 2008 and 2009) were one-and-doned by their out-of-state Division I institutions (one after the 2008 season, the other after 2009). This is another troublesome area that needs further investigation and potential involvement.

Now that we have spelled out the problem, it is time to devise a solution. I propose that one way to remedy the gap between the haves and the have-nots is by the founding and development of a low-cost urban soccer club that would provide playing opportunities in the non-high school season (in Wisconsin, that is fall), offer academic and athletic advising to assist these players in both getting into college and playing soccer while there, and offer a playing outlet during the summer for current college soccer players.

This club would aim to offer players a means of using the game of soccer to further their academic and athletic goals. The structure of the club seeks to utilize programs already in place in the community and funnel their players into an organization that can advance the common interest and provide “something more” to our collective constituents. The following is a basic layout of the pathway for one of our players:

1) A girl begins playing soccer at age 8 through America Scores Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Recreation Department, the Boys and Girls Club, or another local organization.

2) Our club would actively recruit players from these organizations for the development of its U16 and U18 teams (explained more thoroughly later on).

3) A player would begin play on its U16 Green team in the fall of her freshman year, with subsequent passage to U16 Blue, U18 Green, and U18 Blue in future years. In spring, she would be expected to participate in her high school’s soccer program.

4) As a result of playing during the fall club season, said player would have access to high-quality play and exposure to college coaches and recruiters.

5) Following graduation, this player would go onto college and play for her school’s intercollegiate team. During summer breaks, she would be able to play for the club’s team in either the Wisconsin Women’s Premier League or the Women’s Premier Soccer League.

The flagship side for the club would be a team in the Women’s Premier Soccer League and made up of current and former college soccer players and playing a summer schedule. The reason I choose to focus heavily on this team is that it serves as the ultimate success story of the club’s work, that being those who have gone on to play collegiately. Being that Milwaukee Public Schools has produced only a handful of players that are on college rosters at any one time, the need for recruiting players from other city and county high schools will be necessary in the short-term.

The development of the U16 and U18 teams starts with the premise that no player should be denied the opportunity to strive for “something more” on the basis of income, outside obligations, or a perceived lack of elite-level talent. With that in mind, our teams will be NO-CUT. The basic framework calls for two teams at the U16 level and two teams at the U18 level, however we will field additional teams at one or both levels if the numbers warrant and dictate it. The teams and their progression will be as such:

• U16 Green – This team will be made up primarily of freshmen (U15) and will be the entry point for most players in the organization. Sophomores who might be behind the curve or late-bloomers can play on this squad, but we will not be recruiting players not yet in high school for it.

• U16 Blue – Our top team at the U16 level, its makeup will be comprised of mostly sophomores (U16) with some advanced-level freshmen.

• U18 Green – This team is where I perceive a bottleneck of players occurring. This squad will be made up of on-pace juniors and be therefore a U17 team in theory, but advanced sophomores and less-advanced seniors will also be part of the side.

• U18 Blue – The top youth team in our structure, this collection of talent will be the place where college-ready seniors will be able to showcase their playing abilities. Advanced juniors will be able to play on this team as well.

An additional team at the U16 level (if necessary) would be comprised of less-developed incoming players and would be “behind” the U16 Green in the development chart. Should a third U18 team be developed, its composition would be of seniors who have either chosen not to pursue college-playing opportunities or who would otherwise be on the U18 Green. Naturally, some shifting of players might occur in order to balance the rosters numerically. Also, there might be other factors besides skill that would cause a player to be moved away from where they might otherwise be placed.

Beyond what happens on the soccer field, the club would plan to offer both academic and athletic advising to its players, in the hopes that by taking an active interest in its players’ schooling, more (if not all) of them will see college as a worthwhile pursuit and be prepared to tackle its academic rigor once there. For many in our core constituency, going to college may not be on their radar. Perhaps no one in their family or circle of friends has ever graduated from a four-year institution, or even attended school beyond compulsory education. In this country, education is still the most reliable means of economic and social mobility, regardless of how others might like to say that being a professional athlete or a career in the music or entertainment industry are other options. With that in mind, this is how this facet of our programming will work:

1) Every incoming player to the club would meet with our club’s academic advisor. This meeting will consist of discussing the player’s academics and what future plans she might have for post-secondary education.

2) Over the course of the first two years, the player and academic advisor would work together to make sure that the player is on-track academically to achieve the aforementioned plans or revise them should interests and abilities change.

3) At the start of the junior year, preparation for the ACT/SAT would begin and college investigation will commence. The academic advisor would work with the player to help her determine a number of schools where she might be able to succeed academically and socially, as well as assist in the application and financial aid process.

4) In spring, all seniors would participate in a “college boot camp” that would deal with preparation for life in college.

From here, the club’s athletic advisor would work with the player to seek out the right playing opportunity given her schools of interest. This would involve contacting college coaches on the players’ behalf, taking teams to college matches in the area (as is feasible), and working in conjunction with the club’s academic advisor to give every player the right information regarding academics and college playing opportunities so that those who are able to take advantage of it will not be discouraged to do so. In the end, the purpose of the club’s college prep strategy is to level the playing field when it comes to information and advising, to give its players the same level of opportunity that the children of better-off and/or more educated parents already have.

What we have here is a blueprint for an organization. How do we in fact build from that blueprint and create the reality? There are several things needed to bring this to fruition:

• Coaches – We need coaches for each of the four youth teams as well as the WPL/WPSL sides. Each coach would stay with their team for two years (U16 Green => U16 Blue, U18 Green => U18 Blue), with one of the coaches at each level responsible for coordination and roster formation.

• Advisors – We need one person to oversee the academic side of the club and the college-prep program, with another in charge of college recruitment.

• Development Director – Naturally, in order to run a low-cost club, significant resources will need to be procured from the larger community.

• Board of Directors

• Registrar – Responsible for the registration of teams, players, and coaches with the state youth soccer association along with financials therein.

• Community Service Coordinator – A unique aspect of the club would be community service, with all players and staff actively involved.

Am I nuts? Idealistic? Off my rocker?