The Oregonian’s Steve Duin recently wrote an article about the evolution over the past few years in youth soccer, primarily how the Portland Timbers and their parent company, Peregrine Sports, LLC is now in the driver’s seat for youth development in Oregon and SW Washington, for good or ill.
I hope the article spurs some transparency from Peregrine on how the player fees are used, and what plans the Timbers have for making competitive youth soccer more affordable.
My brother and I grew up playing competitive soccer and ODP (Olympic Development Program), and while it certainly wasn’t cheap for my parents (who also spent countless hours driving us all over the Portland metro area and throughout the Western United States to attend training and tournaments), the costs today are now a massive step up for kids to move from the recreational to club level.
I’m not talking double the cost, I’m talking a 7X increase to play for a Timbers Alliance club ($200/year for rec versus $1400/year for competitive), and that is just the opening ante for club fees before tournament fees, travel costs and coaches per diems are added on top.
I have been a volunteer coach for my two sons for the past 6 years and I love it, but I would also like for them to have the opportunity to learn from more advanced coaches that can help them learn and grow as players.
Both my boys made the cut at club team tryouts last year, but we postponed moving up for a year to try and save the money necessary to participate, but likely will need to wait another year before it’s economically feasible.
The clubs do offer financial aid, but it is limited to only those below the poverty line, which is due to the limited funds available to the clubs. For many in positions similar to mine this means I make too much too qualify for aid, but I also don’t have a money tree to pluck the additional thousands of dollars necessary to participate at the competitive level.
The clubs also offer fundraising opportunities, but the funds earned for time volunteering to man concession stands for Peregrine means taking on a second job would be a better use of parents time to come up with the extra money.
For this full time working single parent and volunteer coach (with numerous other school/community fundraising/volunteer commitments), time is a commodity in small supply.
For any sport to assume that parents with limited income must then possess unlimited time to volunteer is as delusional as the parents who staunchly believe their children will beat the odds to become professional soccer players someday.
This is not a woe is me rant, rather it is a commentary that despite the talk that the Timbers want to move away from the American ‘pay to play’ model, they are only entrenching it further.
As Duin notes, surely much of the player fees go to paying for fields, coaches, and referees, and it’s well known that the Timbers are re-investing in the community by partnering with Portland Parks and Recreation to upgrade soccer facilities at Delta Park and adding the futsal courts at Montavilla Park, among various other projects.
The thing is, the Timbers Army and the related Operation Pitch Invasion also upgrade fields in the area, but as a means to make the sport more accessible to the community, whereas the Delta Park renovations will lend more exclusivity of the use of those fields to clubs associated with the Timbers.
Just as the Timbers built their own training facility in Beaverton and plan to expand, the Timbers Alliance clubs are making their own efforts to build their own regional facilities, mostly through fundraising efforts and private land donations. Once these facilities come to fruition the hope from parents is that the clubs will have better control of costs, but player fees are unlikely to go down anytime soon.
For that to happen, the Timbers must commit additional development funds out of their own revenue to subsidize competitive youth club costs in order to make fees affordable to families across the board, not just the top and bottom of the financial scale, and not just for the co-branded clubs.
The European and South American models are designed to funnel the best talent to the local professional teams. The key difference is that when players are scouted and picked up by the competitive teams, the parent club foots all if not most of the bills for the players to participate.
If the Timbers want to truly build an academy model that gets them first dibs on the the next generation of homegrown Nagbes or Charas, keeping competitive club costs reasonable for all participants is the only way forward.
As it stands, the existing pay to play model means the Timbers are missing out on a huge swath of skilled players that are never seen by scouts because they can only afford to play at the recreational level and not make the financial step up to the competitive ranks.
For players that stick with the game without paying to pay club ball, there is some hope that doing well for their high school varsity team will get them a shot at exposure.
Unfortunately, the Timbers acceptance of US Soccer’s mandate for players who play for an academy team must forgo playing for school teams means that even if these players get noticed and picked up for the academy, they must then give up on the alternative route that got them there.
This push towards single sport and single team participation at the expense of everything else is nonsensical and asinine, to say the least. Many of the best players produced by US Soccer are goalkeepers like Kasey Keller and Tim Howard, who credit their athletic aptitude for their position to playing other sports growing up.
While some will argue that field players require more specialized training to succeed in soccer, it’s simply not true. Early specialization also pushes players to burn out of the sport faster, if injuries from overuse don’t make that choice for them sooner.
If the Timbers want the best athletes to be in the eventual academy pool, they need to make playing soccer the sport kids desire to play, not make it mandatory to play at the expense of their other interests.
Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Mallorca co-owner Steve Nash credits playing soccer while growing up for his court vision and telepathic passing abilities that cemented his success as an NBA player and earning MVP honors twice in his career.
Few would argue Nash’s athletic ability meant he could have played professional soccer if he so chose. His decision to play basketball represents a choice many youth soccer players will have to make someday, which sport do they eventually pursue if they want to chase their dreams?
Right now, the Timbers are making that decision too easy for many aspiring soccer players by putting a roadblock made of money in their path.