Imagine the world of soccer without Messi. Without Neymar. Or Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, Pelé.
Aside from being legends in the sport, these players have something else in common. But I’ll come back to that.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, one of the top strikers of all time, came to the US at the twilight of his career. European soccer stars, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, have done the same.
Pro soccer in the US pays big for these icons past their prime. They elevate Major League Soccer with their world class talent. They attract new fans to a league still struggling to stand out among heavyweights like the NFL, NBA, EPL, La Liga, and even Mexico’s Liga MX.
Zlatan came to the LA Galaxy after a decorated career at the top teams in the world: Manchester United, Paris St. Germaine, and FC Barcelona. He joined the Galaxy at the age of 37 for the opportunity to dominate in a lower rated league, to build his brand, and to live in sunny California.
Zlatan was living a piece of the American dream: playing professional sports in the US as one of the nation’s highest paid soccer players, and one of the most popular for sure. He was right down the road from Hollywood, best known for making dreams of fame and fortune come true, where stars are born.
Zlatan’s early life was far from glamorous. He grew up in Sweden, the son of immigrants, a Croatian cleaner and a Bosnian caretaker. They divorced when he was two. As a child, he was dangerously underweight. His parents struggled to provide. When his father saved up enough to buy Zlatan his own bed from IKEA, they had to carry it home because they couldn’t afford the delivery fee.
What's wild to imagine is, that if his parents would have immigrated to America rather than Sweden, it’s unlikely he would have had the opportunity to go pro. He would not have lived the “American dream.” At least not in soccer.
Zlatan’s story is a familiar one for many at the top of pro soccer. Messi’s parents could not afford the medical treatment he needed as a child in Argentina, Neymar shared a mattress with his sister AND parents. Ronaldo’s parents were a cook and gardener, Pelé grew up in the favelas (the Brazilian slums), and Sadio Mané couldn’t afford shoes, or proper clothing as a child. If these icons had grown up in America, it is unlikely they would have risen in the US soccer system.
A recent survey reported in the Guardian revealed staggering data on the economic barriers young athletes face to play soccer in the US (Steve Brenner, 2019). They found that only 11% of children in registered soccer clubs had an annual household income of less than $25,000. In contrast, 35% of children came from households bringing in over $100,000. It’s no wonder that US soccer skews middle class and white.
Zlatan voiced his concerns over the massive fees, when he spoke about paying for his own kids to participate in competitive soccer while he was living in LA.
“It has to be said that the sport is expensive, very expensive,” Zlatan said. “For example, in order for my children to play in a good football team, I have to pay $3,500 per child. It is not for the figure, but for the whole concept.”
Soccer is a working class sport in most of the world, yet in the US it’s one of the most expensive. And the impacts of these economic barriers have been studied.
"Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers and Greg Kaplan, a University of Chicago economics professor, compared the background of each US men’s national team member from 1993 to 2013 to that of every NBA all star and NFL pro bowler over the same period.
They found the soccer players came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the US average, while the basketball and football players came from places that ranked lower than average on those same indicators (Les Carpenter, 2016)."
One thing the pay to play system demonstrates is the extent to which Americans value athletics and specifically youth soccer in our society.
America more than doubles the next best country’s Olympic gold medals. This displays the USA’s large population and ability to develop athletic talent.
It is a culture that celebrates rags to riches stories in all sectors.
America is the best in the world at sports entertainment and launching individual brands is a huge part of that.
That is quite a powerful foundation for US soccer to benefit from. So what is the solution, how does US soccer evolve to become the number one youth development program in the world?
We have to capitalize on all of these resources and create a system that identifies and develops top talent. We have to create the American dream for young soccer players where socioeconomic status and connections are not prerequisites.It’s time to solve the problem of access. And that starts with establishing objective standards.
The key to solving the problem of access is to create data-driven, objective standards for measuring talent in soccer. The main difference between the US soccer system and the American basketball and football programs, is standards.
These standards need to be available to everyone, widely publicized with evidence based training methods that kids can understand and apply to improve performance.
The NFL combine has a 30 percent correlation to performance in the NFL and is a public, televised event. Every 13 year old kid in America who is serious about playing football or even considering a career in football, can easily access the metrics they need to hit in order to be considered. There are widely available resources on how to improve performance in the areas that are evaluated by coaches and scouts. Middle school to NFL, football coaches are using the same metrics to evaluate performance. On the other end of the spectrum, MLS combine results are hidden and seemingly irrelevant. In the past, it would have been a decent argument to say that soccer stats are not as straightforward as American football, so establishing standards is too hard. But with modern data science and computer vision technology, (again American strengths. Moneyball, anyone?) it is absolutely possible and the complexity argument is weak.
If pay to play continues (which it most likely will because it is hard to dismantle a thriving business) the system will continue to favor the rich and exclude the non-rich. One thing the data tells us is that being rich is not a predictor of success in soccer.
So we need to establish objective, data-driven standards and publicize them. Every kid in the US who plays soccer should be able to easily access the metrics that are being used to evaluate them. These kids are the future pros, and they should be able to easily understand both how they are being evaluated and how those stats map to elite performance.We have to respect the players with the how and the why behind these decisions.
This one change will not completely address biases in decision making in the system, however, it will set in motion a transformation. It sends a message to every child that talent evaluations are objective, fair, and transparent. It will open up opportunities for disadvantaged youth with dreams of playing pro, it will improve the overall quality of soccer players in the US and it will ultimately transform the national teams, and the MLS.
By the way, it's not only the US that would benefit from objective standards. Barriers to access plague global football, not just the US. It will take more than data-driven talent evaluation to dismantle these barriers, but a system where every child in the world can see where they stand and what it takes to play pro is a great place to start.