Building Foundations: Growing Grassroots Football in the United States

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #14

Soccer in the United States is an ever-growing sport, but it remains a long way behind the likes of American football and basketball in terms of history, infrastructure and progression.

Unlike the aforementioned sports, where the United States have a long, proud tradition of being at the forefront, and dominating on a global stage, soccer has long been playing catch up. Facing up against Europe, which has had a long-established and thorough footballing pedigree from the top to the very bottom of its football pyramid, the USA has sought to catch up and speed through years of crucial development, and is paying the price for it.

American soccer is a very shallow construct. Further hampered by an attempt to commercialise the sport in its infancy, the United States has created a football league structure lacking the necessary foundations which has cemented European football – and to the same extent the likes of South American football – in their place at the uppermost echelons of the sport.

In the United States, they may well have built a shining pinnacle at the top of their footballing structure; the glistening tree-topper in the shape of Major League Soccer. However, they’ve built their flagship MLS competition on foundations of sand. Now, it’s become a game of filling in and cementing those less glamorous, yet equally vital, underlying roots.

Franchising is integral to the American way of sports, and although it has provided success in those other sports, it simply doesn’t work for association football. Especially not if the United States wants to accurately replicate the success of other football structures, particularly those of top European nations. For a thorough, diverse footballing environment like seen in those nations, grassroots football is crucial. There has to be a deep pool of talent and a wide network of clubs at every step of the footballing pyramid for it to be a success.

Already lacking promotion and relegation – something that has been a staple of pretty much every successful footballing country’s league structures – the United States must at the very least look to establish this wide-ranging network of smaller, grassroots clubs.

The USA has the curse that it is an extremely vast nation, and so providing clubs convenient to all those people is a monumental, almost insurmountable task. Yet, it is one that needs to begin to be addressed, should the country want to be take its association football aspirations seriously. The reason soccer lacks so far behind its fellow sports, because the only real access much of the population has to these sports is during their high school years, where basketball and American football – and their greater college scholarship options – prove to be much more appealing prospects.

But, that doesn’t mean it has to permanently remain that way. In fact, as much as a lack of promotion and relegation hurts the country’s football development, it could also provide one of its greatest strengths to play catch-up in this way. Without the need for higher divisions to promote sides into, there is less need for a succinct and clean football pyramid in the United States.

At these lower steps of the ladder, where grassroots football is so crucial, there can be countless divisions all banded together under one umbrella, but individually addressing local, geographically areas. Much the way conferences work in the US college sports system.

This already happens to a degree too, at amateur level in the United States. However, coverage of these leagues is sporadic at best, and often compiled around large cities. League organisations and administrations are messy and disjointed, and there is no clear, succinct rules, policies or development pathways – all steps which are key to see the kind of football development we see in the likes of Europe. Germany have become masters of this, with young players from almost any town, village or city in the country able to easily access local grassroots clubs, be coached up and then have a clear path they can follow to move up through the ranks and steps of the football ladder should they be good enough.

Access must be affordable too. Many of the world’s best footballers didn’t grow up in rich families. They grew up facing adversity and football became an outlet. One of the common complaints in the United States is that soccer is a very middle-class sport – to get involved with many of the existing grassroots clubs can set back families significantly, and that excludes a large percentage of the population who simply cannot afford it. Basketball, particularly, seizes on this by being a sport with a very low bar to entry financially – and has seen outright success in the USA as a result – but football need not be either. The rest of the world manages to play football at grassroots level without it being an elitist or expensive endeavour.

These are distant goals, however. The end vision is a wide-reaching grassroots football network, whereby no area of the United States – no matter how big or small – is without access to soccer. In the meantime, it’s about building these first steps.

Given the US’ unique situation, we are forced to build in reverse, and that means laying the upper foundations. There needs to be a place young players can cut their teeth prior to the American top-flight, and separate from the collegiate system.

These larger clubs also serve a crucial role in the development of everything that exists beneath it. Soccer is not the dominant sport in America, and likely never will be, so there has to be a reason for people to engage with it. Accessibility is key.

If you bring soccer to people’s doorsteps, and make it affordable especially to those who are perhaps priced out of the commercialised traditional sports, allowing a vast, nationwide community backing the sport to blossom. They will champion its further development and the wheels start in motion.

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