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Pay-to-play is a symptom, not the problem itself

Written by Will Parchman


For more than five years, Tony Annan and his staff poured everything into Georgia United. In that short span of time, they grew the club from a nascent challenger in a historical development blind spot in the U.S. to an academy with four U.S. youth national team players. One of those, Andrew Carleton, might be the most talented U17 player in the pool.

Georgia United, which will have its U16 and U18 teams absorbed by Atlanta United this summer, is not a free academy. It falls into that most reviled category of pay-to-play clubs operating in the U.S. Soccer-run Development Academy, about two thirds of which is made up of clubs that require annual dues.

But even as the club collected checks from parents, every drop of the proceeds – 100 percent – was redirected back into the club’s infrastructure. Travel, equipment, training. In the five years Georgia United operated as a standalone academy with no professional links, the club’s coaches and administrators pocketed nothing. Whatever money they made came from other jobs, other outlets.

As Annan told me in April, you can’t do that forever.

Annan officially moved to Atlanta United this year alongside his two oldest Georgia United age groups. There was a resigned sense of accomplishment about it, that Annan and his men had tapped Georgia United’s resource train to its limit and this was all that was left to do. They had molded youth national team players on a budget and made nothing in personal wealth from it. They could do more with Arthur Blank checks. If the move was bittersweet, the results will not be.

The story of Georgia United and its philosophical kin is often lost in the wash of noise around pay-to-play in this country. I spend a lot of time surrounded by youth soccer coaches, parents and administrators, and among those viewing the issue on a surface level, pay-to-play is often identified as the most nefarious of all the roadblocks to ultimate American soccer success. It is certainly the easiest to spot.

In some ways it’s hard to argue with the fact that money is a gatekeeper in all things, and sport’s unifying tent brings together people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. And that’s true. There is no question the money-threshing American soccer system asks too much of its families.

But in reality pay-to-play is a distressed canary telling us the toxicity in the air is real. It is only a symptom. It is not the problem itself.

Last year, I had a conversation with Gerry McKeown, who coaches the US Club Soccer id2 team that gave a then-13-year-old Christian Pulisic his first real taste of international soccer. He’s also the boys director of coaching at PDA, which notably won the U18 Development Academy national championship in 2014.

PDA is one of those non-MLS DA clubs considered Too Big To Fail. Its alumni list includes, among a bevy of MLS players, Giuseppe Rossi. It is a monolith in the Northeast, rivaled only by MLS clubs with considerably more resources and the backing to make their academies free. PDA does not have that luxury.

PDA is not cheap. Over the life of a single youth soccer player’s career, his family is looking at feeding out thousands of dollars in lieu of a scholarship. But the vast majority of those fees are operational, essentially ensuring the club can attract and keep coaches worthy of the PDA name and not lose any ground.

PDA needs pay-to-play to simply hold its ground, to stay afloat. And without top-down player compensation, even that looks like a losing battle right now.

“For us, it would be really helpful if the laws changed or if there was a way for us to get compensation,” McKeown said. “Because then we can fund our academy. All it would be would put directly back into the system and into the players. For me, that’s the only way we can survive long term. At some point, the money has to come from somewhere. If we’re funding the academy, there has to be compensation from somewhere. Otherwise, where does the money come from?”

There is inevitably a round of hand-wringing about this topic in America when another piece hits, and this time it was this frankly well-researched piece in The Guardian. It is nothing new, raising questions and wrestling with layers of nuance this country has confronted for decades.

But the myopia around a blind hatred for pay-to-play – it is not good, for whatever that is worth – buries the reality of running a club in America and those broader problems. Of soccer culture; it is not the dominant one. Of inner-city sporting interest aside from money; it is rarely the primary one. And maybe most of all, of money itself; there is not enough to spread around. Not hardly.

Neymar was folded into the Santos academy at 11. By 15, he was making nearly $2,800 a month. Paul Pogba was in a pro system by 14. Eden Hazard at 12.

The point is not that these countries do a better job at identifying talent, which is an undeniable truism. It is that before they were identified they always had somewhere to go first. And the money swishing through the system allowed it in the first place. Hazard, Pogba and Neymar all started at non-professional clubs, where they played for years before striking it rich. Those clubs were fed money by the ultimate sales of their former players and the incredible amount of monetary commitment by the owners and leagues in those countries. They survive today because of it.

To put it as frankly as possible, there are a lot of phenomenally wealthy people in the world’s best soccer countries leveraging their money and their blood for the game’s advancement. We have that in other sports. Not so much in soccer just yet. And that changes everything.

Soccer development is an enormous series of circular arrows all pointing at one another. It is an ecosystem. Paradoxically, for all the pay-to-play cash in ours, the American system is among the poorest in the world. The money isn’t being inputted in the right channels. MLS clubs need to begin compensating those non-MLS clubs doing the heavy work of youth player production. It is the only way.

Proper money circulation is a much heavier scourge than youth clubs simply charging for the right to play. The vast majority of clubs in travel-heavy leagues producing players charge money because they have to. There is no money elsewhere, unless you ask club administrators to dip into their own savings. There is no question this country shelters those clubs that exist as cash grabs, fronting a British accent and fancy equipment and little of practical substance.

But you have a far better chance of stumbling across a club trying to do right by its players by taking money they make from player dues and channeling it back into the operation of the club itself. It’s how Georgia United did it. To a lesser extent, it’s how PDA does it. And it’s how the vast majority of the Development Academy’s best non-MLS clubs stay alive.

They are not getting fat off the bumper crop of pay-to-play. This is subsistence living. They are trying, and in many cases failing, to survive.

Look at it one way. Whatever you think about Ronald Reagan, the money involved in soccer development is top-down. It has to start with professional clubs, which reel in sponsorship cash, gate fees, and other big money assets youth clubs will never sniff. You mitigate that by trickling money down to those clubs that feed these players to the pros. This is the cycle. Take your favorite MLS Homegrown player, and there is an almost deadlock certainty that he was not actually developed at that MLS club. He was claimed and poached.

There is a wafting argument in this discussion that pay-to-play clubs shouldn’t be eligible for compensation by dint of their for-profit status. There is an altruistic catch in us that sees an injustice there, and that I understand. But remember, we are dealing with cycles here. By excluding pay-to-play clubs from profiting on players they themselves helped mold, you’re dooming them to a Sisyphean future of rolling the rock up the hill only to watch it bound back to where it started. They’ll never escape pay-to-play if you don’t give them the resources to do so in the first place.

And this is one reason among many as to why we are where we are.

There is an acidic cocktail of reasons as to why the system is fragmented. I touched on many of them here. But pay-to-play is a consequence of our actions, not a reason in and of itself. It is residual sediment left after the real tragedy, like toxic waste rolling out on the shore while the reactor burns in the distance.


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