Pro/Rel vs. Solidarity Payments: What’s Holding Soccer Back in the US?

Switching gears away from politics, here’s another hot button issue to discuss following the US Men’s National Soccer Team’s 2-1 loss to Mexico on Friday evening.

These guys think the lack of promotion/relegation at the top level (MLS) is the one thing holding soccer back in the U.S.

This guy thinks the lack of solidarity payments is the reason.

Promotion/relegation is how pro and amateur soccer works nearly everywhere, except in US pro soccer. That is, the bottom teams in a league are relegated to the next lowest league and the best teams from that league are promoted up to the best league.

Even the indoor soccer facility I play at uses pro/reg. The best teams from my ‘rec’ division are promoted to the ‘competitive’ division each session, while the worst teams from that division are relegated to my division.

In England, for example, the pro/rel structure for soccer goes at least 9 leagues deep, the top 4 leagues are what most people look at it.

They believe this structure, like free market capitalism, allows the best to rise to the top. Without it, there’s just too many biases holding them back.

Solidarity payments are payments made to clubs from pro teams when they sign contracts with players the clubs have trained.

In other parts of the world, many clubs have formed their business model around training future soccer stars and they get paid when one of their stars makes it big.

This changes the incentives for clubs quite a bit.

US clubs operate on the ‘pay-for-play’ model. That is, their profits come from the pockets of parents paying fees for their kids to get professionally trained.

Clubs in other countries, that can be rewarded handsomely when their players go pro, organize leagues and training that is often free to players. Their incentive is to get as many players as possible playing the game, so they can find the diamonds in the rough that can be turned into pro prospects.

The result in the U.S. is that suburban, ‘pay-for-play’ 12-year-old club soccer players have about the same level of technical ability as a 6-year-old from soccer-culture communities in the U.S. who grow up playing unorganized soccer with friends and family, because they can’t afford to pay the club fees or are not interested in playing against kids who can barely control the ball. That’s no fun for them.

Personally, I think both of these contribute. I put more weight in the latter argument, though. If clubs could earn solidarity payments, I think they would be more focused on getting more kids playing, instead of just finding the kids who have parents with deep enough wallets to pay their fees.

Both viewpoints believe there are enough people who are in love with soccer in the U.S., it’s just the system isn’t kind to them.

I disagree with that. I agree there are a lot of people involved in soccer.

But, until I see just as many kids playing soccer in their driveways, yards, schoolyards and parks without adults leading the activity, as I do other sports, I don’t think we are there yet.

Until I see American kids, on a widespread scale, become obsessed with learning to juggle a soccer ball or adopt good soccer technique of their favorite pro players, I don’t think we are there yet.

With popular sports in the U.S., kids learn a good deal of good technique outside of organized teams simply through basic games that build lots of repetition, like playing catch or driveway basketball.

With soccer, an inordinate amount of time in practice is dedicated to teaching the basics, because they haven’t learned them elsewhere.

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