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Talent Doesn’t Belong to You

One of the most surefire ways to demonstrate to parents just how corrupt American soccer can be is to talk to them about Major League Soccer Territorial Rights. In essence this is a policy that actively prevents players from signing where they want in our country's top flight league. What this looks like is somewhat unbelievable: male players in Arizona, e.g., simply belong to Real Salt Lake because of where they live. They may never play for any RSL club team at any level but if the Chicago Fire decided they like your player's game and wanted to sign him, they would have to negotiate with and purchase the right to do so from Real Salt Lake. So your player works tirelessly in pursuit of his dream and the MLS franchise in Utah makes money because of your zip code. Caden Clark [link] is perhaps the best example of the predatory mindset and the accompanying policies that feed this sense that talented young players belong to a club, even one they've never played for!

This mindset is often seen among youth clubs as well. The sense that players belong to a youth club means a club becomes possessive of their players and incredulous that any other club should exist or can offer something valuable. They tend to stop focusing on player development and they foment an attitude of "these belong to me not because I did anything, but because this is my turf [or because I was here first or because I'm bigger]".

Smaller markets, where monopolies are easier to establish, are particularly susceptible to this mindset. (It happens in MLS, which is a massive market, because it is an artificially established monopoly.) The results are all inward focused "solutions" to invented problems:

  • Proposals to combine clubs and "all just join forces" seem magnanimous, but are really intended to reduce competition and ensure that talent only has one place to go.

  • Complaints that "there really shouldn't be so many clubs because it dilutes the talent pool" belies the fact that clubs are unwilling and/or unable to invest the effort in actually developing and expanding that talent pool.

  • Relationships between clubs are largely antagonistic since the large/first/dominant club sees talent as finite and "owed" to them.

These viewpoints display the same provincial attitude about talent development as MLS franchises do: "These players belong to our club."

Further, when a club characterizes the talent pool as finite and a "zero sum" resource, especially on the youth soccer level, it abdicates its responsibility for developing and cultivating talent. To attempt to possess talent and argue that someone should play for your club simply because of their zip code is to deny them any agency in the matter. To insist that your club is the only "real" club that exists, or should exist, is to exude laziness and become complicit in the stagnant growth in youth soccer.

Coaches and club administrators should be focusing on how to broaden and deepen the talent pool: by adding more players. That's how we truly grow the game here in the US. To me, the only time you should question if a soccer club should exist is when it begins treating players as a commodity. Imagine implicitly communicating to a kid and his/her family that talent is finite and pre-determined, that you're personally incapable of creating more talent, and that they have to play for you anyway because you're the only game in town.

Rather, we should look to find ways to make competitive soccer accessible for children without quite so great a regard for their innate abilities. We should have a mind toward helping create both the passion and, yes, the talent in them to play the beautiful game, and play it well.

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