The Downsides of America’s Hyper-Competitive Youth-Soccer Industry

The sport’s top tier is organized around the goal of producing a tiny group of elite players, at the expense of kids’—and parents’—well-being.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

In the late 1970s, when he was 10, Rob Nissen played for the only soccer team available to kids in his middle-class, New Jersey town. “It cost $20 to join, and you got a T-shirt and you played,” said Nissen, who today is a book publicist, still in New Jersey. On Saturdays, he would put on his white canvas Keds and head over to the one park in town that was big enough to accommodate an actual game. No girls’ teams waited on the sidelines—only boys played soccer. Soccer has come a long way in America. Today, millions of American boys and girls play it. It’s a shift that has delighted many: the sport’s fanatics, parents who don’t want their children getting tackled on football fields, and the kids themselves, who often develop a lifelong passion for the sport.

But American youth soccer—and, in particular, the kind played outside of school, on competitive private “club” teams at the highest level—has also come under criticism. The problem, of course, is not with the sport itself, but with the highly demanding nature of the top tier of play. (In the U.S., other sports, such as lacrosse, volleyball, and basketball, have club systems that can be just as demanding as soccer’s, though soccer’s is the most widespread.)

For one, the risk of injury is high, due in part to many kids’ decision to focus intensely on one particular sport. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that “the increased emphasis on sports specialization has led to an increase in overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout.” An analysis in the medical journal Pediatrics of soccer-related emergency-room visits among children aged 7 to 17 reveals a dramatic uptick in injuries: Researchers found that the annual rate of injuries for every 10,000 soccer players rose by 111.4 percent between 1990 and 2014; the annual rate of concussions and other “closed head injuries”—when the head is hit, but the skull isn’t penetrated—over the same period went up by 1,595.6 percent. Girls are injured more than boys. Knee injuries, including ACL tears, are nearly four times more likely to bedevil female soccer players than male. (The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reported that female soccer players have a higher rate of concussion than football players.)

“Almost all researchers in the field agree that later specialization”—ideally, after the early growth spurt associated with puberty—“is the healthier route (from the perspective of the child’s overall well-being),” Richard Bailey, a senior researcher at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education, wrote me in an email. “And that is why they predominantly recommend … [the] sampling of multiple sports, the development of a broad base of movement skills, and delayed specialization as the preferable approach.”

U.S. Soccer, the sport’s national governing body, has a different perspective. The organization’s chief medical officer, George Chiampas, told me that findings from an upcoming study that he co-authored, which compared injury rates among boys on teams in its Development Academy, a program set up by U.S. Soccer to cultivate top players, found no difference between those who just played soccer and those who played additional sports. Is it ever too early to specialize? “It depends on the environment,” he said.

Unlike U.S. Lacrosse, which has come out in favor of multi-sport play, U.S. Soccer has taken no definitive position on specialization. “We’re still analyzing the research,” said Ryan Mooney, U.S. Soccer’s chief soccer officer. As evidence of the organization’s commitment to protecting kids, Chiampas pointed to a safety and injury-prevention platform, Recognize to Recover, and to the fact that in 2015, U.S. Soccer instituted a rule disallowing children 10 and under to head the ball. Chiampas also said that the organization has stepped up its coaching education and is deeply committed to creating a “culture of safety” for all players.

Intense youth travel teams can also send unhealthy messages, to kids and adults alike, about a family’s priorities. Club soccer can require heroic measures on the part of adults—driving regularly to and from distant games, giving over sacred weekends to a child’s pursuit, and dividing up the family to deposit different kids at separate venues. One of the main jobs of parents, said Madeline Levine, a psychologist and the author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, is modeling for children what adulthood should look like. Youth sports teams that require parents to devote huge amounts of time and income signal to children that grown-ups are an afterthought, and that being a parent is an exercise in passivity and boredom. “We have become so child-centered that what kids have to look forward to [when they become parents] is diddling with a cellphone and sitting passively, not being an active participant,” she said.

Another downside for elite youth-soccer players is that their clubs tend to pull them away from their high-school communities. Those who play for the rarefied Development Academy teams are prohibited from playing for their schools. Even if they make friends on their soccer teams, “the kids lose out,” said Roberta Moran, the athletic director at Kent Place School, a private girls’ school in New Jersey. “They miss the social aspect of playing a sport with their community of friends at school.” Less-competitive club teams don’t draw kids away from school as strongly—many play for their schools as well—but also exact a social cost, as their year-round schedules make it difficult for players to participate in other sports at their high schools.

Last year, U.S. Soccer imposed a new rule that made these problems worse. The rule was seemingly innocuous: Clubs had to start organizing teams according to players’ birth year rather than their academic year, which caused a lot of roster reshuffling. Victor Matheson, an economics professor at College of the Holy Cross, said that U.S. Soccer made this change to more easily identify the top 20 teenage players for the 17-and-under World Cup, which will be held in Peru next year. He says the change has further disrupted players’ social lives, as it has split up established teams made up of longtime friends. “The entire program is designed to train and identify an elite core of 20 players who will be on the U.S. team in 8 or 18 years,” said Matheson, adding, “this is a tiny fraction of kids who play soccer.”

Part of the reason soccer has this incredibly demanding top tier, said Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology at Villanova and author of How College Athletics Are Hurting Girls’ Sports, is that it’s one of the most commercialized of youth sports; it contains a flourishing industry of tournament directors, private club and travel teams, and assorted soccer-related businesses whose financial interest is served by the status quo. And unlike basketball, say, which also has a sturdy commercial presence, soccer has developed so that the top players are identified and nurtured only through clubs. While college-basketball coaches still scout players at gyms and high schools, their counterparts in soccer rely on “showcase” tournaments to fill out their teams. “Soccer is the poster child for hyper-commercialized youth sports because it is played across the country and across the world, it has extraordinarily high participation levels, and is equally commercialized for girls and boys,” Eckstein wrote in an email.

Though U.S. Soccer sits atop the pyramid of organizations that oversee all American leagues and teams, it has limited authority over private clubs, and tournament directors, college coaches, and others who make money from youth soccer have little incentive to change. The clubs’ business model “is not our expertise,” Mooney told me, and the most the organization can do is offer incentives for good behavior. Chiampas added that parents need to intervene and do what’s best for their child if a club team is too demanding.

More can be done. Instead of imposing policies that revolve around building a strong national team, regardless of the impact on ordinary players, U.S. Soccer could establish rules that serve more kids (and still cultivate top-tier talent). For example, it could reverse itself and require teams to be formed on the school calendar, so that classmates can continue to play together. It could also use its platform to discourage early specialization and to encourage players to take part in multiple sports, even through high school.

Parents, too, can reassert their authority and insist that their own children not play one sport year-round, especially when their kids are constantly exhausted, sidelined with nagging injuries, and devoid of unscheduled time. “If the sport has knocked out the family environment and nothing else is happening, and others in the family are suffering from the lack of attention, then summon up the courage to say, ‘We’re a family, and we’re not doing this anymore,’” Levine said. “All the things that seem so life-altering when they’re younger—when they get older, you think, That didn’t make much difference,” she added.

Those who care about soccer in the United States could learn something from Belgium. Eighteen years ago, Belgium’s men's national soccer team lost in the first round of the European Football Championship.* It was a staggering failure, which prompted the national director of coach education, Kris Van der Haegen, to overhaul the way they trained football coaches. The main principle of the new approach was to put the players first, before coaches or teams, and to “create an environment of freedom” that restored the game’s creativity and fun. In 2015, Belgium became the world’s top-ranked team. “When things are going well, people don’t want to listen,” Van der Haegen said during an interview. The loss “was the perfect moment to get everyone around the table and ask what we were doing wrong.”

*This article originally stated that Belgium's men's national soccer team had lost in the first round of the World Cup 18 years ago. We regret the error.