Remarks to US Youth Soccer Annual General Meeting
Sheraton Overland Park Hotel and Convention Center
Overland Park, Kansas
Saturday, July 27, 2019
Thank you, Pete [Zopfi], for your very kind introduction. As we all know, Pete’s day job is literally saving lives in the operating room. Yet he still finds time to serve—as your Chairman, on the U.S. Soccer Board, and on our Youth Soccer Task Force. Thank you, Dr. Pete.
Just as Pete has brought a spirit of cooperation to his work, we’ve been working hard at the Federation to be an even better partner with our members, including all of you. I think it’s fair to say that today the relationship between U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer is stronger than it’s ever been.
To your board of directors, Chris Moore, and all of you—presidents and executive directors from across the country—it’s wonderful to be back with you today. I especially want to acknowledge the new state presidents who are joining us for the first time. To each of you—welcome, and please know that U.S. Soccer is here to help you succeed.
It’s also great to be back for your National Championships. Good luck to all the teams, and congratulations to yesterday’s 13U winners—it was an honor for me to see them play—the boys champions, Pipeline SC from Maryland! And the girls champions, Albion SC Academy Whittaker from Cal South!
I want to acknowledge two special guests—members of U.S. Soccer’s Athletes’ Council: a former member of our Women’s National Team, Yael Averbuch, and a longtime member of our Men’s National Team, Jonathan Spector.
I’m also pleased to be joined today by representatives from Soccer House who work every day to keep our Federation—and members like you—strong and growing: our CEO, Dan Flynn, Brian Remedi, Caitlin Carducci and Nathan Goldberg, all of whom you know well.
As I announced at the U.S. Soccer AGM in Scottsdale, Dan is stepping down this year after nearly 20 years of outstanding service. I’m leading a committee that has been conducting a very thorough search for Dan’s successor, and we’re determined to find the absolute best person for the job. Our search is still underway, and we hope to have an announcement in the months ahead. Without a doubt, U.S. Soccer and soccer in America is stronger because of Dan, and I’d ask you to join me in once again thanking him for his dedicated service.
First and foremost, I’m here today to say thank you to those of you at US Youth Soccer and all our youth organizations. Thank you for the incredible amount time that you give as volunteers. And thank you for helping to inspire and build the players of tomorrow. Those 23 amazing Women’s National Team players who just won the World Cup again started out as youth players and with parents and coaches and referees and administrators who believed in them and supported them. We can never say it enough—youth soccer is the foundation and future of soccer in America.
I’m also here today to reaffirm our commitment at the Federation to being your partner. After all, we’re stronger because of each other. Your programming at the grassroots—the players you bring in, the teams and leagues and tournaments you organize—helps keep our Federation strong and growing. At the Federation, our support and investments in youth—like the Innovate to Grow program, support with player registration, and programming for coaching and referee education—all helps you thrive.
That’s what I want to focus on today—how we can keep growing together.
At U.S. Soccer, as I discussed at our AGM in Scottsdale, we’ve been focused on delivering the change and progress that our Federation needs. We’re making governance more open and accountable. We’re investing more in our national teams. And we’re stepping up our efforts to grow the grassroots, including youth. Across all these areas, we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re on our way. We know that, as a Federation, we have to constantly strive to be even better.
That’s also the commitment we’ve made to you, our members. That’s why we expanded and formalized our Membership Department, now a five-person team led by Brian and Caitlin focused on serving you and all our members better. It’s why Brian, Caitlin and other members of our team are going to more of your state AGMs than ever before—to make sure we’re listening and addressing the issues you care about most.
It’s why we’ve made a point to invite more of you—state presidents and executive directors—to join us at National Team matches across the country. I have to say, it’s been a highlight of serving as president—spending time with you, watching a match and getting to know you and your families. It’s also been a fantastic opportunity to talk, hear from you directly and share ideas for the future. And I look forward to welcoming more of you to future matches.
Of course, one of the best tools for growing together is our Innovate to Grow grant program. During the past two years, the Federation has offered up to $3 million dollars each year to help our youth and adult members recruit and retain more players, coaches and referees. So far, we’ve awarded grants to 24 youth organizations, including some of you here today. These grants, on average, total more than $63,000, and members are using them to address some of the most pressing challenges in youth soccer.
Together, we have to do more to recruit and retain players from underserved communities, including urban areas. So, with funds from Innovate to Grow, Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association purchased a mobile street soccer pitch. All told, they’ve already brought street soccer to more than 8,000 boys and girls in low-income communities. And in one city, it’s sparked a local conversation about converting more of the community’s green spaces into soccer fields. Thank you, Massachusetts, especially President Bob Trudeau and Executive Director Mike Borislow. Together, we now have to find a way to scale this effort and roll it out nationally in large cities.
We also have to do more to increase the number of licensed coaches. So, with funds from Innovate to Grow, Illinois Youth Soccer is engaging volunteers who are already active in the local community and putting them through the 4v4 Grassroots Course to become licensed soccer coaches. The result after just a few months—60 new licensed coaches, with more coming this fall. Their ultimate goal—300 new coaches. Thank you, Illinois, especially Gus and Mary Jane Bender, and Director of Coaching Adam Howarth.
I do want to point out again, however, that there’s still so much more we can do together. 103 members of the Federation—youth and adult—are eligible for Innovate to Grow grants. But over the past two years, only 26 have applied. As a result, of the $6 million total we could have awarded, we’ve only granted $1.9 million. That’s more than $4 million that’s been left on the table. In the years ahead, we’ll offer millions more. Again, this is money that we’ve set aside for members like you, and we want you to have it. But you have to apply, and I once again want to encourage all of you to please take advantage of this tremendous opportunity when applications open again this fall.
Of course, the best way to truly grow together is by all youth organizations working together. Last year at your AGM in Frisco, I proposed a new Youth Task Force that would, for the first time ever, bring all our youth members together to look at how we can do better. The response was very positive, and youth organizations stepped up, including US Youth Soccer. We created the task force last fall, and Dan Flynn and our new U.S. Soccer Vice President—Cindy Parlow Cone—are serving as task force co-chairs.
I especially want to thank all the youth organizations that are participating: US Youth Soccer, AYSO, US Club Soccer, SAY Soccer, and USSSA. The task force has divided its efforts among six working groups, and they’re making progress.
The working group on risk management and SafeSport—chaired by Pete Zopfi—is focused on helping members meet your obligations under SafeSport and finding ways to standardize background checks.
The working group on standards and certification—chaired by SAY Soccer’s Doug Wood—is looking at a national certification process, with common standards, so that we’re truly creating the best environment for players and their development.
The working groups are also tackling some of the biggest challenges you face every day.
We all know that youth soccer is facing a referee shortage, with nearly 40% of referees leaving every year. So the working group on referees surveyed more than 5,000 referees across the country. One of the key findings was that more than 80% of referees say that they had been verbally abused in the last year. I think we can all agree—this is totally unacceptable. Protecting referees, many of who are teenagers, and improving their working conditions is part of our responsibility as leaders.
I’m happy to report that the working group has unanimously endorsed the creation of a new, national campaign to promote respect for our referees, and raise awareness among players, coaches and parents so that all our referees are given the support and respect they deserve. A national campaign is a must. At the same time, we already have policies to safeguard our referees, but those policies need to be enforced. It should be pretty simple—you abuse a referee, physically or verbally, and you’re out.
Next, we all know that we need to recruit and retain more youth coaches. Yesterday, I visited the National Development Center not far from here. Many of you were there last year for our Member Meetings. It’s amazing. The NDC is a truly world-class environment that’s working every day to raise the standard of coaching at all levels. I encourage all of you, especially your technical leaders and coaches, to take advantage of this incredible facility and the great courses it offers.
At the same time, the Youth Task Force working group on coaching—chaired by US Club’s Mike Cullina—is working closely with coaching education leaders across the country, including U.S. Soccer’s Director of Coaching Education Barry Pauwels. They’re focused on two areas—identifying the barriers that prevent more people from becoming licensed coaches and expanding the number of licensed instructors available to teach courses.
I’m pleased to report that the working group has identified some promising options—pilot programs to modify the Grassroots Instructor License, as well as both the D and C Course Structure, so that more candidates can advance through the pathway. More information is coming soon, and we’re hoping this will be another important step toward recruiting and retaining the next generation of high-quality coaches we need to grow the game.
Related to this, we all know that the number of registered players under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer has stagnated even as there are millions of players on unaffiliated teams and leagues. In our fractured youth landscape, some youth organizations also spend too much time competing with each other to recruit players and make money when youth soccer should be about cooperating to develop players and grow the game.
That’s why the working group on membership growth—chaired by Tim Turney—is so important. Simply by coming together and working to solve common problems, all these youth organizations have already taken an important step toward greater unity.
Working together, we have to reduce barriers to participation, including the high cost of “pay to play.” So the working group is also exploring ways to make soccer more affordable—especially for families in urban and underserved communities—and how to make sure unaffiliated leagues see the many benefits of being a member of U.S. Soccer.
We saw a great example of a partnership to reduce barriers and grow membership just this week. Michigan Youth Soccer—together with U.S. Soccer and the Aspen Institute—are going to work together to expand coaching education, and, with more coaches, welcome more players.
Finally, we all know that youth soccer has to truly welcome and include all members of the communities they serve. The working group on diversity and inclusion—chaired by USSSA’s Craig Scriven—is looking at how to create more playing opportunities for youth from diverse backgrounds. That includes youth from our cities and immigrant communities.
And just as U.S. Soccer is constantly working to be even more diverse and inclusive, youth soccer will be even stronger when coaches, referees—and, yes, your associations and boards—draw on the talents of everyone in your communities, including minority and women leaders. What you say at US Youth Soccer can be our guide—we have to make youth soccer “a place for everyone.”
Despite all the challenges of bringing everyone together, the task force is making progress, and their work continues. It will take time, and it won’t be easy, but I’ll keep insisting on it—growing youth soccer must be our highest priority.
As I think about our shared responsibility to our youth players, I’m reminded of a young girl named Olivia Wade. And I want to close by sharing her story with you. Olivia is from Boise, Idaho, and she loves soccer. Her idol is another Boise-native, Sofia Huerta, who has played for our Women’s National Team and is also with the Houston Dash.
Last year, Olivia, then eight years old, had a wish: to meet Sofia. Bill Taylor of Idaho Youth Soccer, who’s here today, put me in touch with Olivia’s family. We arranged for the experience of a lifetime—at a Women’s National Team game in Orlando, we brought Olivia onto the field to meet her idol Sofia. Olivia was absolutely beaming. She later said, “It blew my mind,” and she called Sofia “the best role model in the world for me.” And Olivia added, “I want to play soccer like her someday.”
There are millions of girls and boys like Olivia all across our country. They’re the reason you do what you do every day. They’re the reason we’re here today. On behalf of all of us at U.S. Soccer, we’re committed—in partnership with you—to helping all those boys and girls play the game they love and go as far as their talents and passion will take them. And if we do our job right—if we keep growing together—young players like Olivia will keep looking up to teams like our 2019 Women’s World Cup champions and say to themselves, “I can play soccer like them someday!”
Thank you, US Youth Soccer. Thank you all very much.