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Want to get pay-to-play out of U.S. soccer? It will take a lot of work

The parents of players in a major youth soccer organization spend nearly $1.5 billion combined on fees and travel costs.

Parents of youth soccer players often spend thousands of dollars per year on registration fees, travel and equipment.
Parents of youth soccer players often spend thousands of dollars per year on registration fees, travel and equipment.Read moreJessica Griffin/Staff Photographer

This is the second of a three-part series from a recent interview with Kevin Payne, the CEO of U.S. Club Soccer. The focus here is on the pay-to-play culture in the youth soccer landscape. Payne also discussed his view of calls for American soccer to adopt training compensation and solidarity payments of the kind European clubs pay to youth clubs that develop professional players. American professional clubs currently do not pay those sums.

Part 1: The state of the American soccer landscape after the men's national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup
Part 3: The high cost of coaching in America, and his view on the upcoming U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election

The transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

On the impact of the pay-to-play model on youth soccer players in underprivileged communities, and the idea that even if it's not so easy to let everyone in for free, there should at least be a push to make sure that everyone who wants to participate can do so independent of need:

Yeah, I actually think there's probably some grain of truth to that. But I think there's a lot of exaggeration. I think this is another thing where people are just looking for a simple explanation.

First of all, the majority of the serious clubs in the country, the ones that are playing at a higher level — and I don't mean just the academy clubs, I mean hundreds of clubs deep below that level — they all provide scholarship opportunities to kids who couldn't otherwise afford to play. Whose parents couldn't afford to pay the full freight that the other kids might be paying.

In addition, the U.S. Soccer Foundation has begun a program called "Soccer for Success" which has a lot of very broad and growing support around the country. MLS is a big supporter. Target is now a big supporter. Various government agencies are supporting it.

The objective is to get a million kids in under-served communities in urban areas involved with the game and playing the game within the next decade. And to build 1,000 small-sided fields in urban environments. That process is underway.

I don't think the problem is so much, in under-served communities, an inability for kids who like soccer to afford to play. I think it's that the game just hasn't been introduced in a lot of those communities until now. So there is a concerted effort underway that the Federation and the Foundation strategized about a number of years ago. The Foundation took the lead. I think it's a program that will bear fruit. But it's going to take time.

I think that the Federation and the soccer community writ large in this country have also done a much better job in this country in recent years of embracing the recent immigrant community, particularly the Latin community. There's a significant number of kids in our national teams, especially our youth national teams, who come from first- or second-generation [immigrant] families.

We're not getting them all, but that's true of every cultural institution in America. It's not easy to convince — especially in the environment that we find ourselves in today, with the posture the government is taking — it's not easy to get first-generation, in particular, people involved in a program where they have to sign up.

But there are efforts underway to improve that, and I think there's a significant amount of progress that has been made to attract more and more recent immigrant kids, particularly  from the Latin cultures where the game is king. And we see that reflected in our youth national teams.

In our case, our id2 team — which is our 14-and-under team that we put together each year after scouting around the entire country — that group now is typically anywhere from 60 to 75 percent kids who are not "traditional suburban American players." They're Latin kids, they're African kids. That's the program where Christian Pulisic was first identified and brought to the attention of the national team.

So there's a lot of talent, I think, that is coming into the system from non-traditional sources. We'd all like to see more, but there's a lot more being done than a lot of people realize.

On whether there is a way to broaden the quantity of money and sources of that money, so that more of it flows to not just professional clubs' academies, but also high-level youth clubs that are not affiliated with professional clubs:

The biggest difference between us and a lot of other countries we try to learn from is just the scale of our country. I'll just give you an example.

Our organization has roughly 500,000 registered players. We did research with our members this year and had statistically relevant responses, and a little more than 70 percent of our members say they spend at least $3,000 a year on their children's soccer. That's just in our organization, somewhere around $1.5 billion that's being spent this year. $50 of sponsorship money doesn't really make much of an impact in a marketplace where that much money is being spent.

I really don't think that the pay-to-play element of this is critically important. I really believe that for the most part, kids that have a real desire to play — particularly kids that demonstrate any real talent — they get opportunities to play.

I'll give you one example: Crossfire, a well-known club in the Seattle area which has been in place there for quite a long time. DeAndre Yedlin came through that program, Jordan Morris came through that program. They also both played at other clubs, but before they became professionals, they played at Crossfire.

The club recently conducted an auction that they work on they entire year. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars which will go for scholarships. That money is intended to ensure that kids who could not otherwise afford to play for Crossfire are able to afford to play.

I think a significant majority of clubs that are playing at a higher level — and I don't mean just the academy level — are engaged in similar kinds of efforts. I think this is another case of us looking for relatively easy answers. "Well, gee, if we just throw money at it, then that will solve the problem."

I don't think that who pays the bills is really the important piece of this. What's really the important piece is what's being taught for the kids, regardless of who's paying for it. What's being taught.

If Bill Gates' child wanted to go play for a club in Seattle, he would not become a better soccer player because some outside entity paid the way for him to play. But he would become a better soccer player, even though his father is paying for it, if the club does a better job of training him.

To me, that's where we need to focus our attention: how do we improve the training environment, and what is being taught, and when? And to what end? What are we telling our coaches is the measure of success for them?

On his view of the demand for American soccer to institute FIFA's program of solidarity payments and training compensation to youth clubs that develop eventual pros, as countries around the world do:

I've been convinced by the attorneys that I've talked to, including the U.S. Soccer Federation's attorneys, that solidarity payments will not be found legal by courts here in the United States. Nor will training compensation payments.

You have to remember that these are players who were not under professional contracts anywhere. So DeAndre Yedlin, for instance, was not paid to play. Do I think that the professional game, and even the national team program, should find a way of rewarding — if that's the right word — clubs that consistently produce top-level players? Yes, I do. I don't think it should be a direct quid pro quo for a specific player.

I really don't believe that it's going to be be something that's enforceable in the U.S. I doubt that the Court of Arbitration for Sport is going to put itself in a position of trying to supersede U.S. law. But even if they did rule that the system needs to be upheld, then I think that somebody on the players' side will just file a lawsuit in the courts in the United States and ultimately prevail, and it will become a moot point.

On whether there might be another way to set up a system of compensation that would fit within U.S. law, even if it isn't exactly the same thing as FIFA's system; and on a recent report by Soccer America that discussions are underway to create just such a system:

Yeah, that's what was said, and I don't know what conversations might be going on behind the scenes.

I was in two meetings [with U.S. Soccer and an attorney for youth soccer clubs seeking compensation] in Chicago, and at the second meeting, I said exactly what I just said. I strongly encourage the professional leagues and the Federation to engage in a conversation with clubs about providing financial incentives for those clubs that consistently do a good job.

And I had the impression that there was at least a willingness to have that conversation and see if it could go anywhere. Then, two or three days later, Lance [Reich, the attorney for the youth clubs] and the clubs filed a lawsuit — and naming, in the lawsuit, individual players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley as defendants.

This is not a simple issue. People want to believe it's a simple issue. It's not. Let's just say, for instance, a guy like Clint Dempsey — he trained one day a week with the Dallas Texans [one of the clubs in the suit, along with Crossfire]. He was not really a player that was developed by the Dallas Texans. So even if the Dallas Texans get money for Clint, what about the clubs he grew up playing for in Nacogdoches? Now you've got to start distributing money to them, too?

[Nacogdoches is Dempsey's home town; his parents regularly drove him to Dallas, about three hours northwest, for big youth games.]

It becomes very challenging. It's not easy. That doesn't mean it's impossible to figure out a way to solve it. But I don't think it's going to be solved through the mechanisms of FIFA. Which are, by the way, being challenged in multiple courts in Europe, including at the European Union ministry level.

And they're being challenged for the same reason that they would likely not pass muster with American law: because they result in a restraint of the free movement of labor. That's the ultimate impact of this. It's basically, in effect, a tax on the movement of players. The number one founding principle of the EU is the free movement of labor. That's what led to the Bosman ruling.

[The Bosman ruling opened the way for free agency and compensatory transfer fees when players are dealt from one soccer team to another within Europe.]

So who knows what's going to happen with this. I don't think it's anything that any of us should assume is going to be some sort of magic bullet here in the U.S.