How American soccer's pay-to-play culture affects diversity at the Union academy and beyond

If you ask Union academy chief Richie Graham about the lack of diversity in American youth soccer, you had better be ready for a long answer. He knows  that getting the full melting pot of players on to American soccer's official pathways is crucial to the national team’s future.

Although Philadelphia isn’t as diverse as Los Angeles or New York or Dallas, Graham is still intent on making sure the Union’s academy isn’t just for those who play what he pointedly calls "the suburban pastime."

Here are his thoughts on the work he’s doing, and on what has to change on the American soccer landscape as a whole. These quotes are gleaned from various parts of the interview I did with him that was the foundation of my recent feature on the Union's youth academy.

If you look at our academy, over 65 percent of the kids would define themselves as ethnically diverse. We have a fair amount of boys from West African communities and other parts of the world that have come in. From the school's perspective, something like over 80 percent of the kids qualify for financial need-based support.

I think that Philly is a different makeup, obviously, than an L.A., but we also have diversity here. So that's the first part, if you did sort of an inventory of the Philadelphia Union academy and the kids. The second piece is how do we go into these communities and provide opportunities for kids so that we can tap into the diversity of the game?

That's a really important piece. Making soccer accessible so it's not just the suburban pastime, right? Derrick Jones, for example, wasn't even on the youth radar. He's playing for a men's team, Junior Lone Star. We played scrimmages with them and it was [Union academy director] Tommy Wilson that said, "Who is that kid? Oh, he's 15 years old." We were like, "What?"

There are kids out there, even in our own community, that aren't necessarily showing up in the youth soccer, travel soccer scenario. That's a big issue for the U.S., and for every city: How do we link into these communities that love and breathe soccer already, and find young talent?

I think that we need to look pretty closely at the regular youth soccer travel environment [and] the pressure to do tournaments and travel and the amount - there's a lot of pressure on teams because they want to get ranked.

If you added up all that travel time and you put those same groups of kids on a field working on their technical skills, I think you would have better results, and it would be a cheaper solution for the parents, for the families. That's from a youth soccer perspective.

We made a decision at the Philadelphia Union to provide it free of cost to the families, but it's certainly not free to us. It's a massive investment. We wanted to create a situation where it was really equal opportunity for all, and you get away from this if-you-can-pay-for-it-you-can-do-it [mentality]. That’s not what we want.

[For the record, the Union academy isn’t entirely free of charge, and Graham acknowledged as much. It’s free if you live at home, go to your regular high school and play for the Union’s academy team, but the team’s full-time high school has a $28,500 annual tuition. Within that, according to Graham, $1.7 million of the school’s overall $2.1 million tuition revenue budget is covered by financial aid. Until that gap is filled, some players’ families will have to pay.]

There is a lot of pressure on these young ones to go chase this tournament or that tournament in an effort to get ranked. That's why I really commend some of the things U.S. Soccer is doing in terms of player development initiatives, and sort of re-focusing the story on to skill development and the individual player.

Tommy [Wilson]'s line is "Teams don't make debuts, but players do." If you think about our youth academy, our coaches are being evaluated on how they're doing in terms of individual development. It's whether we can sign another couple of Auston Trustys, not whether our youth academy U-18s win national championships. That's not actually important.

In fact, for a lot of our showcase events, the Anthony Fontanas and those guys are playing with the [Bethlehem] Steel. If we really wanted to win, we would put all our best players in there. But it's not about that.

And I think in youth soccer too, focus more time on the field, less time chasing around tournaments and long travel hours to be in leagues where they're sending nine-year-olds for three hours in the car. It's crazy. And that's obviously a lot of money when you add that all up, between gas and travel and uniforms and the whole thing. But I think re-thinking that will then lower the financial bar.


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