In an era when so much of youth soccer has become profit-driven, the 45-year-old American Youth Soccer Organization continues to provide low-cost play for children thanks to its steadfast belief in volunteer coaches.
By Mike Woitalla (from the July issue of Soccer America)
Last year I found myself in the Texas Hill Country and was told I could see some youth soccer at Oak Crest Park in Fredericksburg. As I approached the park, I expected to see and hear the usual, and figured I would come away with the mixed feelings I almost always get from watching organized youth soccer.
There's the delight of watching children enjoying the wonderful game of soccer, whether it's seeing youngsters displaying precocious skills or the children who can barely kick the ball five yards but are having a fine time trying.
But usually youth soccer games are accompanied by ear-piercing screaming from adults and overcoaching that steal from the youngsters their right to play on their own terms. On this Saturday morning, I heard very little yelling. The various age groups played on appropriate fields that didn't leave half the players stranded far from the ball. The youngest children scampered around a tiny field without goalkeepers. There were 5-a-side, 7-a-side and 9-a-side games. Whoever organized this seemed to have a good grasp on what was appropriate for each age group.
I took a close look at some players waiting for their game, and saw on the jerseys the AYSO logo. The same logo I had on a sky-blue jersey when I played youth soccer in Hawaii a long time ago.
That logo was created 45 years ago by AYSO founder Hans Stierle, a commercial artist in Southern California, after his two sons agreed it would be a good idea to form a league.
"I came up with the name at 2 o'clock in the morning," says Stierle. "Then I took those four letters and put them in a square. Then I placed the lettering around it in a circle, with 'Founded 1964' on the bottom."
Stierle was the manager of a German-American sports and social club that fielded a men's soccer team in the Los Angeles area's ethnic league. When he was kicking a ball around with his sons, Kurt and Paul, he threw out the idea of forming teams so children too could play games. They found enough players for four squads. By the second year, they had nine teams.
Stierle wanted to make sure all the kids had a good time, so he created the "Everyone Plays" concept and designed a lineup card that divided the game up into quarters and made it easy for coaches to ensure that each child played at least half the game.
The league grew rapidly as Stierle went to surrounding communities recruiting teams, and it even found sponsors, one of the first being Sunkist.
"They brought us a crate of oranges," says Hans' wife, Christel. "So I cut them up and brought them to the games. I was the first soccer mom!"
Christel also remembers the early years when they collected the jerseys from all 72 teams so that they could use them for the next season. She washed them and mended those that needed repair.
Today, AYSO has about 600,000 players under its umbrella around the nation and is run by 200,000 volunteers, including more than 80,000 coaches. Even the referees don't get paid. In an era when it's common to spend thousands of dollars a year on your children's soccer, AYSO's nationwide average registration fee, which includes the uniform, is about $100 per season.
AYSO's National Executive Director is Rick Davis, who got his start in soccer thanks to AYSO when he was a 6-year-old. Davis went on to play for the New York Cosmos and captain the U.S. national team.
Before returning to AYSO in 2004, Davis served as the director of a Southern California youth club and saw how dramatically the youth soccer scene had changed.
He received a phone call from a mother who wanted her 10-year-old boy to play for his club, even though it would require a two-hour drive, each way, for practices and games.
Davis told the mother he was glad she had heard great things about the club, but told her, "Do not for a second let me or anybody else tell you that you need to travel two hours with a kid of 10 years of age to help him realize the greatness that he might be."
The club president reprimanded Davis for turning the boy away. That got him recalling his childhood, when youth sports were affordable and community-based. He admired the fact that AYSO has clung to that model.
"Now it seems that for parents it's an investment," says Davis. And there are legions of paid coaches and profit-driven coaching firms to take advantage.
"Youth soccer has gone the route of being highly professionalized," he says. "Unfortunately, it's evolved in a vacuum, because I don't think there's been a check and balance.
"I think parents are intimidated by the travel teams and pro coaches and think that if I don't do this, somehow my child is not going to achieve or not be good as somebody else. Clearly the club system feeds on that."
AYSO's mission isn't to create college or professional players, but enough of the USA's top players did get their start in AYSO to prove it provides a good soccer environment for those who aspire to the highest levels. For example, Landon Donovan, currently the nation's top male player, played AYSO from age 5 to 14.
"The beauty of AYSO was that you had kids from all walks of life who just wanted to be active and run around and play soccer," Donovan says. "I started playing club soccer at the age of 10 but I wanted to continue playing AYSO because I enjoyed the camaraderie and the ability to just play for the love of playing."
Many, probably the majority, of AYSO volunteer coaches don't have experience in the game. To that end it has an extensive coaching education program that stresses an age-appropriate approach. In fact, one could argue that its emphasis on fun and player freedom at the early ages is the best way to develop players. Volunteer coaches don't have the pressure that paid coaches have to deliver short-term results at the expense of long-term player development.
"Just because a coach is paid doesn't guarantee you anything," says Burt Haimes, whose 35 years of AYSO service included seven years as national president and 12 years as chairman of the board. "We have training programs for coaches that will match any in the United States, because they're focused on what the children's needs are, what they want, and obviously the technical skills are really well incorporated."
The proliferation of paid coaching is not just driven by those who profit. It has become more difficult to find volunteers.
"The problem with this generation is you have more working husbands and wives," Haimes says. "There's a lot of single-parent families. And you have a lot of affluence and more ability to throw money at an issue rather than to throw yourself at it, so they just as soon hire a paid trainer or a paid coach, so they can do something else.
"The pressure to professionalize the kids is more and more. But AYSO stands out like a bastion for the non-professionalization of our kids."
(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)