The US Soccer Federation recently announced that the federation has a 100 million dollar surplus. Reports later came out that they were planning to spend it on US Soccer building a new national training center.
From there, American soccer twitter raged and debated with some notable personalities in the US soccer community voicing their anger at how incompetent the US Soccer Federation has been under the leadership of Sunil Galati and how we didn’t need another training center.
Sunil Gulati assumed office in 2006 and has run unopposed in his past two elections. He currently serves on the FIFA Executive Committee and is fairly close to current FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He has spearheaded the movement to create a sustainable women’s nation league and is leading a joint 2026 World Cup bid with Mexico and Canada. The number of registered youth players in the USA has stayed the same throughout his time in office at just above 3 million. Perhaps the most notable change under Gulati’s tenure is the gradual growth in the US Soccer pyramid across MLS, NASL, USL, NPSL, and the PDL with the number of professional and semi-professional teams almost doubling from 33 to 60 (if you count just the MLS, NASL, and USL). But has Gulati and the USSF done enough to get the country where it should be?
The problems currently facing US Soccer range far and wide. The first notable problem is that we still haven’t created a united pyramid where all the leagues are working toward a common goal of raising the level of play in the US. The continuing politicking between NASL, USL, and MLS is quite harmful to the growth of soccer and has created “soccer wars” where each of these leagues compete against each other for their claim of a city. This has fractionalized US Soccer far beyond repair with fans having to chose a league over the greater good of the US soccer pyramid. If the USA truly wants to advance and become a super power, the USSF needs to try to create a friendlier dialogue preaching for unity between NASL, USL, and MLS instead of being mute on the situation and only coming to help when one league is in trouble.
This leads into the second problem, which is the lack of relevancy the US Open Cup has in the States. The US Open Cup is the FA Cup of our country and should be treated with the same importance as in England. The US Open Cup was created in 1914 and is home to some of the greatest US soccer folklore. The Open Cup is slowly gaining more relevancy in the States thanks to small TV contracts with ESPN but it is nowhere near where it should be. US Soccer should be looking to make this Cup mainstream among MLS fans who often barely show up to match-ups against lower division teams. Part of the reason for its struggle is the simple fact that most casual American sports fans are reluctant to watch another competition for one of their teams, to have one team in multiple competitions is not part of our sporting culture, just look at the NBA, NFL, and MLB. US Soccer needs to market this tournament more to the casual soccer fans, get in on mainstream television, and incentivize clubs to take it more seriously through an increase in prize money. That 100 million dollar surplus could help promote one of the oldest running tournaments in the world.
Though perhaps the most pressing issue that US soccer needs to address has to due with our culture itself. About two thirds of the youth clubs in America are in a pay-to-play structure. “Pay-to-Play” means that every year families are required to pay out of pocket fees in order to keep their kids playing at the highest level during their youth development. The fees pay the club’s coaching staff and other expenses that keep the club afloat. In other advanced soccer countries are the world, these non-professional clubs survive through payments from professional clubs who pay them for compensation for their work in youth development. This is non-existent in US soccer and it is ultimately holding us back. Developing a player costs a pretty penny and youth clubs in America have no other way for paying for these expenses than charing parents annual fees. This is making soccer an “upper-middle class” sport instead of a sport that everyone can play at a high level. These youth clubs need another form of income (like fees on players they actually developed) so they can survive for generations. US Soccer can change this.
The last problem US soccer needs to address is the lack of soccer pick-up culture there is in the USA. Pick-up game culture, which is found universally in soccer loving nations, is a way for young players to pick up creative insights into the game that they otherwise wouldn’t in training. Pick-up culture also builds communities in ways that soccer clubs cannot. Given that most Americans do not know or talk to their neighbors plays a role in the lack of soccer pick-up culture in this country but the USSF can play a role in changing this by implementing community programs and events, allowing younger kids to play soccer for fun (besides AYSO) in suburbs, inner-cities, and rural areas around the country.
The US is still a young soccer nation, so there will be growing pains. The USSF needs do more than it is currently doing to address the headwinds in the US game today.