The American Soccer Model and the Women’s Game

I was privileged to be a guest on Vuvuzela – The World Soccer Show on Tuesday evening to discuss the roots of Milwaukee United Soccer Club, our goals as an organization, and where we want to see the game of women’s soccer go in this country.  A previous segment of the show got into a discussion of soccer academies in the United States and their place in developing players for the professional game (namely, the men’s game).  One of the hosts professed to being anti-school sports (high school and college), believing that “a proper club” was the only way to develop players that could ply their trade at the professional level and generate significant transfer fees for said clubs to eventually open the game to those from lower economic situations.  This critique did not take into account ANYTHING regarding the fact that professional women’s team sports in the United States do not offer the potential for life-changing income (unlike say golf or tennis might) to the point where an athlete can have a professional career and live off that income once she retires.  With that said, the American Soccer Model with higher education as one of its backbones is the ONLY means by which a female soccer player might be able to set herself up for life both in and out of the game, and is truly the only mechanism to enhance one’s life chances should a person not be born into a well-off family.

Because education is seen in the United States as the most reliable means of increasing one’s economic and social mobility, the college game is the path for almost all players to bridge the space between youth/prep soccer and the professional game.  Despite its short season, its over-reliance on “athletic” players (as is the case in the youth game), and the limited scope of most schools’ recruitment (i.e. looking solely at big-name clubs for players), women’s college soccer is still the best environment for players at the present time.  That said, the college game is myopic in its approach to using their schools’ vast academic resources and clout to advance the life chances of women who don’t come from well-off backgrounds, who didn’t have the means of paying thousands of dollars a year to play for a top-name club and thus get themselves in eyesight of college programs, who might be the first person in their family to have the opportunity to attend a four-year institution of higher learning.  Because there is literally no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for female athletes unlike players of American football or basketball, a college education is a MUST for eventual self-sufficiency and thus academies within girls’ soccer would only serve to consolidate elite talent into fewer venues, with that talent again being by and large those who do not need the game to sustain or advance their life chances.   The allure of a “scholarship” to play college soccer (never mind the relative paucity of it given NCAA maximums and the cost of attendance) is the carrot dangled in front of these players, thus that becomes the goal of players rather than a professional career, which makes an alternate path in the game a no-go in the US.

So what options are available for players not on the primrose path of well-off parents, big-dollar clubs, and suburban or private schooling?  I wrote about that in a previous entry here (Soccer, We Have a Problem).  Namely, non-profit and community organizations exposing players to the game at younger ages and then partnering with innovative clubs in their communities that work within the system but do not conform to that system.  Also, players truly do need to advocate for themselves and make themselves known to those in the college soccer world, but also need advocates in the greater soccer community doing some leg work to get them on those programs’ radars.  I think of a player that we have in the fold who embodies our mission and vision.  She comes from a lower-income family and didn’t play club soccer until she was a senior in high school, only to be made to feel unwelcome in that environment.  She was able to get scholarships to attend a local NAIA school (both soccer and academic) and has thrived as a result.  What greater opportunities might have been there if she had had the opportunity for year-round play at a younger age?  THIS is why I am doing what I do and for whom it is for.