The American Exception

US men's professional soccer is uniquely exclusionary. That might be why they didn't make it to the World Cup.

Christian Pulisic of the United States' men's national team reacts to their loss to Trinidad and Tobago on October 10, 2017. Ashley Allen / Getty Images)

On October 10, the US men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the upcoming World Cup. All they needed to play in Russia 2018 was a draw with Trinidad and Tobago; instead, they turned in one of the most listless performances of an already-lackluster qualification campaign. As the whistle blew on a 2-1 defeat, the Americans slumped off a soggy Trinidadian field, having missed the World Cup for the first time since the Reagan administration.

There’s lots of blame to go around for last week’s screw-up, and much of it has been directed at US Soccer Federation (USSF) president Sunil Gulati, who was already a controversial figure. On the one hand, he has presided over some of American soccer’s greatest successes, including a 2015 World Cup victory for the US women’s national team, unprecedented growth for Major League Soccer (MLS), and the foundation of the National Women’s Soccer League. Then again, he also issued a firm “no” when the women’s team demanded to be paid as much as their male counterparts. When one of those women took a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick last spring, Gulati’s organization immediately passed a new rule mandating that players “stand respectfully” for the anthem. Finally, there’s the hiring and firing of controversial men’s team manager Jürgen Klinsmann, followed by the choice of the conservative, uninspiring Bruce Arena to lead the ultimately disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign.

But looming behind Gulati’s controversies are more systemic issues: the monopolistic structure of US soccer, the disregard for training at the lower levels, and the deeply unequal access to the sport. These issues conspire to create a rot at the heart of US soccer, compounding disparities while driving down performance over time.

Complacent at the Top

A national football association (the USSF, in our case) is the supposedly neutral governing body for soccer in a given country. It serves as that country’s representative to FIFA, the International Federation of Football Associations, and organizes domestic competitions. That involves creating a multi-tiered structure, known as a pyramid, that ranks the country’s professional soccer leagues. There’s generally one league in the top tier, similar but less-glamorous leagues in the second and third tiers, and regional leagues in the tiers below that. Teams can move from lower leagues to higher ones or vice-versa based on their performance.

The process by which they can move is known as promotion and relegation, or pro/rel, and it’s taken for granted many parts of the world. The team or teams that finish highest in a given league move up to the league above them, switching places with the lowest finishers from the higher league. In short, pro/rel creates a pathway from obscurity all the way to the top, making for some of the greatest stories in all of sports. For example, Leicester City FC’s 2016 English Premier League title, won only two years after the club was promoted from the second division, was celebrated the world over and has been called the unlikeliest championship in sports history.

None of that happens in American soccer. MLS has been the dominant force in American soccer ever since its founding. Broadly speaking, it is the only major soccer league in the world that does not promote teams from below and relegate its weakest members.

Nowadays, second- and third-tier clubs are gaining popularity in the United States, and have begun calling for pro/rel. Those calls have intensified after the Trinidad and Tobago match, with many pointing to pro/rel as the obvious solution to complacency at the top of the pyramid. The USSF, as soccer’s “neutral” governing body, should be cracking the whip and forcing MLS clubs to accept more competition. Instead, it has stood together with MLS to quash moves towards pro/rel.

This crony dynamic between the USSF and MLS isn’t just evident in the pro/rel controversy. It can also be seen in another flashpoint in US soccer: the solidarity fee.

No Solidarity

Solidarity fees are a time-honored tradition among soccer federations everywhere else in the world. According to FIFA rules, if a player transfers to another team during their contract, 5 percent of the transfer fee is distributed to the clubs involved in the player’s training and education over the years. It is a lucrative method for supporting youth clubs and incentivizing quality training at the lower levels. And the United States is the only place where it doesn’t exist.

One of the players at the center of the solidarity fee controversy is DeAndre Yedlin. After making waves with the Seattle Sounders, Yedlin moved up, signing with Tottenham Hotspur of England’s Premier League, which forked over £2.3 million for the acquisition.

In accordance with FIFA rules, and evidently unfamiliar with the American concept of a “student-athlete,” Tottenham contacted the University of Akron, where Yedlin played in college, to give them a cut of the transfer fee. This sparked a battle in US soccer. Major League Soccer intended to keep all the money and block solidarity fees for good. But Crossfire Premier, the club where Yedlin actually trained as a youth, saw Tottenham’s mistake as a chance to get a cut of the transfer, to which they felt entitled. Had he been from any other FIFA-member country, roughly $185,000 of his price tag would have been distributed to Crossfire and the other clubs where the young Yedlin developed.

In 2014, Crossfire Premier joined with two other clubs in a class-action suit for the right to collect solidarity fees. The suit captured the attention of the American soccer media, but it was dismissed on the grounds that US courts don’t exist to enforce FIFA rules. That’s a shame, because without solidarity fees, youth clubs don’t have the money to give young players the strong foundation they need to break into professional soccer later.

This is only compounded by the fact that US soccer is plagued by a particularly exclusionary pay-to-play model. Instead of providing intentional, systematic support for young players, US soccer’s institutions have left them to the whims of the market.

Soccer in the Suburbs

“Every model in the world is pay-for-play,” said David Richardson, President and Technical Director of Sockers FC, which was part of Crossfire Premier’s lawsuit. What varies, he says, “is who’s paying for it.”

Kids can — and do — play soccer on virtually any surface, but those who become elite players usually train on quality fields, oftentimes traveling significant distances to do so. In addition to equipment and travel costs, someone has to provide decent nutrition and healthcare. Plus, even the best raw talents need skilled coaching, and elite coaches tend not to work for free.

In many countries, a poor kid with talent doesn’t always rely on his or her parents to cover these expenses. In nations like England and Brazil, clubs routinely host trials for local kids, scooping up the most promising ones into well-funded youth systems. In Germany and France, the national soccer federation has established academies across the country for the purpose of developing young players and helping them get noticed by professional clubs.

American youth clubs, on the other hand, almost always require families to pay hefty dues, following the grand US tradition of shifting costs onto individuals. In wealthy suburbs, where parents can afford the best, clubs can charge four figures per child, per year. They use that money to pay the best coaches and to travel to play the best teams, attracting further interest from those who can afford dues.

Meanwhile, kids from poorer areas are left behind. Ed Garza, the former Mayor of San Antonio and current President of the Urban Soccer Leadership Academy (USLA), explained that it’s hard to attract coaches while keeping dues low.

“[Our coaches] are ok with being paid a month or two late because a sponsor check hasn’t come in,” he said. “it’s a different dynamic that we have to design ourselves around because of the model we’re trying to develop.”

USLA can’t afford not to charge families, but it automatically subsidizes a high percentage of fees for any player whose family is near or below the poverty line. By the time the kids are in high school, Garza says, that means that about 85 to 90 percent are paying less than two hundred dollars a year. It’s not a perfect system, but it benefits hundreds of inner-city kids, the vast majority of whom are non-white and either below the poverty line or hovering just above it.

Of course, most USLA alums won’t go pro — Garza stresses that his primary mission is helping them find a “path to college.” But what if one of them did? USLA’s operating budget last year was $274,000. If DeAndre Yedlin had come from this club, and the USSF enforced the FIFA rules that every other nation follows, the solidarity fees from his deal alone would have amounted to an increase of at least a third in the club’s budget, which Garza said would go to bringing more kids into the program.

But Yedlin did not come from an inner-city program like USLA. Most of America’s top players don’t. According to Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology at Villanova University, the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes account for only 13 percent of youth club members, while 35 percent of youth players come from families with annual incomes over $100,000. A 2013 study by the University of Chicago’s Greg Kaplan and British-American pundit Roger Bennett found that USMNT players came from areas that were whiter, wealthier, better-educated, and better-employed than the national average, while NBA All-Stars and NFL Pro-Bowlers came from areas that were below the national average in all of those categories.

Those numbers are striking, particularly given that soccer is exponentially more popular among Latinos than it is with whites. Fueled by income inequality, the American model perpetuates racial and economic inequality in a sport that, in much of the world, is synonymous with working-class culture.

Again, in classic American fashion, some pundits have rushed to blame individuals. The players need to want it more, journalists need to hold them to a higher standard, Gulati needs to be put out on an ice floe, etc. Shortly before resigning, Arena mystifyingly advised against “crazy changes” in America’s approach to soccer. Others, however, are waking up to the reality that the system is broken.

“The United States Soccer Federation is treating a sport the American way,” remarked ESPN’s Taylor Twellman in the wake of last week’s loss, “while the rest of the world is doing it the opposite way. I just think, with the amount of resources in this country, we’re better than that.”

Twellman is right in his suggestion that this historic failure warrants a historic re-thinking of the way American soccer is handled. It’s absurd to think that this country lacks the talent or resources to qualify for the World Cup. Then again, with a system that deprives poor players and clubs of access to those resources, it was equally absurd that we expected to qualify in the first place.