Youth Soccer In The U.S. Is In A Bad Way, But Just How Bad – And What To Do About It – Is Unclear

The sport's governors have eight years to make things right, lest the 2026 FIFA World Cup turns out to be the biggest embarrassment in American soccer history.

youth soccer in america is in a bad way
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The sport's governors have eight years to make things right, lest the 2026 FIFA World Cup turns out to be the biggest embarrassment in American soccer history.

Youth soccer in the United States is in disaster mode, with declining enrollment in youth soccer, financial barriers keeping many kids from having access to the game, and a lack of a clear direction for where the sport’s governors even want youth soccer to go.

What may have been the lowest point in American soccer in decades took place in October of last year. Needing a win against Trinidad and Tobago, a country with the population of Sacramento, in order to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team lost, eliminating the USA from qualification for the tournament and leaving U.S. Soccer in tatters.

By all rights, a wealthy and populous nation like the United States should be competitive, if not dominant, at the international level in soccer (just look at our women, who have won three Women’s World Cup titles, including the most recent, in 2015). We are not.

And as The L.A. Times reports, the problems with American men’s soccer begin at the youth level.

The biggest problem, as far as anyone can tell, is that not enough American kids are playing soccer. Depending on whom you ask, the number of American kids playing soccer has either dropped precipitously or at the very least, it’s failed to grow as much as it should.

The sporting goods industry takes the former view, that participation has dropped. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group representing sporting goods manufacturers and retailers, says that the last three years have been dismal for youth soccer. According to a study commissioned by the group, the number of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer had declined 14 percent, to 2.3 million.

Mike Hoyer, the executive director of the American Youth Soccer Association, disputes that study, while still admitting things are bad. By his estimates, the number of American kids playing soccer has been “flat” over the last decade – not growing, but certainly not falling off of a cliff.

So what’s keeping American kids from playing soccer?

One issue may be the recent trend of parents encouraging kids to focus on one sport and play it year-round, instead of playing a variety of different sports depending on the season. And while the old canard that Americans hate soccer is decades out of date, it’s true that, if kids are forced to choose between only baseball and only soccer or only football or only whatever, that’s going to cut into the numbers of American kids playing soccer.

Another issue is a financial one. You may have heard of “traveling teams” or “pay to play” leagues – that is, private leagues where participants pay a fee, rather than public school teams. As soccer moves away from being school-based and instead based on private participating, that puts soccer out of reach for poorer families.

Indeed, a third of the households in the U.S. with children playing soccer have incomes of $100,000 or more, three times the rate of participation from households with an income of less than $25,000.

“If we were to look at it from scratch, youth soccer would not be structured the way it is.”

For now, youth soccer’s governors believe that they have eight years, give or take, to get things sorted out. That’s because, in 2026, the USA (along with Mexico and Canada) will jointly host the FIFA World Cup. Carlos Cordeiro, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, hopes the AYSO can right the ship between now and then.

“In short, co-hosting in 2026 — and the years leading up to it — will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring us closer to our goal of making soccer the preeminent sport in America.”