Missed Goals

December 1, 2017  • Jon Solomon

In many countries around the world, soccer remains an egalitarian game that low-income populations can play: all you need is a ball and some space. In the United States,however, youth soccer is a pay-to-play venture that has been dominated by the suburban middle class since the sport’s boom in the 1970s. In the chase for a college scholarship, families may spend $5,000 a year for access to club teams and tournaments.

It’s in this landscape where many Latino youth—whose culture is often identified by its passion for soccer—get left behind.

“More kids play unorganized soccer in this country than organized soccer,” says Doug Andreassen, who recently served as chairman of the Diversity Task Force for the US Soccer Federation, the governing body for the sport. Just under 8 percent of kids ages six to 12 play soccer on a regular basis, according to the latest Sports & Fitness Industry Association sports-participation survey—down 26 percent since 2011. Only track and field and wrestling experienced greater declines. “We’re not even close to touching those [underserved soccer] kids,” Andreassen says. “They would love to have US Soccer ask, ‘What’s the pathway for families who don’t have $5,000 a year?'”

To be clear, many kids—not just Latinos—are forgotten. The focus in soccer often turns to Latinos because of the large population in the United States and their lower median household incomes—$45,148 compared with $62,950 for whites and $77,166 for Asians. Despite slowing population growth, Latinos still accounted for 54 percent of US growth between 2000 and 2014, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data.

“There’s a lot of [Latino] talent being missed,” says former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, who founded the Urban Soccer Leadership Academy in 2010 to help San Antonio urban youth play soccer and advance to college. “When I think about the colleges and pros who can’t tap into this huge market, they face the same challenges as youth soccer clubs: how to do it and the commitment to do it.”

Beyond the economic barriers, grassroots soccer leaders like Garza identify a number of challenges in getting and keeping Latino youth in the game:

  • Lack of safe places to play.
  • Lack of transportation to practices and games.
  • Too few trained Latino coaches.
  • Administrative barriers, such as knowing how to organize a nonprofit.
  • Language barriers that keep non-Spanish-speaking coaches and administrators from connecting with Latino families.
  • Cultural barriers of merging Latino and US suburban culture.
  • Fear of providing documents and information during registration that could be used against the family by US immigration officials.

“We try not to keep any documents,” Garza says. “For older teams that travel, especially close to the border checkpoint, parents are very reluctant to let their children go.”

“There’s a lot of [Latino] talent being missed. When I think about the colleges and pros who can’t tap into this huge market, they face the same challenges as youth soccer clubs: how to do it and the commitment to do it.”
— Ed Garza

In 2015, journalist Roger Bennett and University of Chicago economics professor Greg Kaplan produced a study comparing the background of each US men’s soccer national team member with every NBA All-Star and NFL Pro Bowl player from 1993 to 2014. Soccer players came from communities that had higher incomes, education, and employment rankings, and were whiter than the US average. NBA and NFL players came from communities that ranked lower than average.

Grassroots innovators like Garza say they want to create healthier lives, routes to college education, and more integrated communities. In the United States, 42 percent of Latinos are obese, compared with about a third of whites, according to the 2016 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Hispanic high-school dropout rate declined from 32 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2014. Yet just 15 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s or higher degree, trailing blacks (22 percent), whites (41 percent), and Asians (63 percent).

Soccer can also empower Latina women, who are often overlooked in sports participation. Many parents may work long hours for little pay, and young women are often asked to help support younger siblings or take a part-time job.

Garza doesn’t see many soccer organizations trying to bring underserved Latinos into soccer. “I understand why, given the challenges,” he says. “You need a committed group of leaders and volunteers to implement the vision. You’ve got to be able to weather the storm of the initial few years to prove to people that you’re here to stay and it’s something to invest in.”

And that’s coming from one of the nation’s most successful innovators. Imagine the challenges other leaders face in leveraging the power and passion of soccer to improve the lives of Latino youth.