Sidelined: How obstacles in American pay-to-play youth soccer are phasing out talented players and the method being used in DC to fix it

pay to play

So the US Men’s National team won’t be participating in the 2018 World Cup in Moscow…now what?  Why is the world’s most powerful nation still struggling to make progress to compete on the world’s stage in the beautiful game? It’s a question that every columnist and soccer fan has been asking since Tuesday’s loss. And while many people have many answers, we at Open Goal Project have built our program and a logistical blueprint to combat the one issue that we believe is the biggest hindrance to our growth of the sport at the youth level: Pay-to-play.

Pay-to-play meaning, quite simply, that to just participate, a young soccer player’s family needs to fork over money…lots and lots of money. And if a player doesn’t have that money, they rarely find opportunity.

But if you dig deeper, "pay to play" doesn't just pose financial issues, it's actually a catchall for several obstacles beyond money. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, invisible barriers to entry are making it virtually impossible for talented minorities from low-income families to be discovered, to compete and to continue to develop within the American youth soccer landscape. After seeing these barriers first hand, we at Open Goal Project have developed a system and model that we are implementing and succeeding with, empowering talented players from low-income families make the most of their natural potential on and off the field.

We launched Open Goal Project in 2015 to help support three talented youth soccer players from low-income families in DC and since then we’ve helped dozens access opportunities to grow with the game.  As our mission has unfolded, we’ve gotten an up-close look at how all these hidden obstacles are phasing out players, with so much potential, likely all over the country, before they even begin to come up through the system.

Terrific talent, sidelined.

While many people talk about the pay-to-play problem, we’ve actually learned the issue is comprised of three specific factors that act as obstacles for our players:

1.     Lack of parental knowledge and involvement

2.     Transportation challenges

3.     The money

Here’s how we’re helping our players overcome those obstacles…


To start, our players’ parents didn’t even know what travel soccer was. Sons and daughters of Central American and African immigrants, the players that we work with have mothers and fathers that are so busy trying to make ends meet for their families, they don’t have the knowledge or the time to explore extracurricular growth activities for their children.  One of the players we support---who wasn’t even playing travel soccer a year ago because of lack of resources---was invited to attend a national team ID camp this past month.  Her single mother of three daughters, who works the overnight shift as a nurse, has still never seen her play.

To identify our players, we’ve teamed up with DC SCORES, the District’s largest after-school soccer nonprofit, to go into inner city public schools, identify their highest performing players and effectively communicate to the parents or guardians the benefits and potential growth opportunities that playing high-level soccer can present their child’s future. These are parents who have never been to college, some who have never been to high school, so without us fully explaining how the game could take their son or daughter places they could never dream of, they will have no grasp of the potential life impact. 

Once we’ve identified a player, our Open Goal Executive Director, former MLS player Amir Lowery, actively seeks out specific opportunities to facilitate for those players – a task that generally falls on a player’s mother or father. From that point, logistical items, scholarship applications and required paperwork for our players runs through an Open Goal point person. It might seem like a lot of handholding, but to make it work, it’s what’s necessary. Whether it’s battling a language barrier or not having access to a computer or printer in the home, when parents face obstacles, the kids face obstacles. Our logistical coordination provides stability for our players to keep seeking higher opportunities for growth that their parents simply cannot provide.


You might not think of something as seemingly simple as physically getting to practices and games could pose a challenge, but it’s a huge undertaking that our players face consistently.

At a young age, how do you get to a soccer practice? Our players have mothers or fathers who have to work around the clock to put food on the table. Many of the mothers and fathers we work with don’t even have a own car.

Sometimes we’ve tried to coordinate rides for our players with teammates, but for many of our players, their teammates don’t live anywhere nearby.

In our early days, our players would take public transit, but the amount of time required to take multiple crosstown buses for a weeknight practice could take several hours roundtrip.

As we started seeking out transportation alternatives, coordinating Lyft and Uber rides for our players has become our preferred method.


Of course, the number one issue with pay-to-play is money itself. For families who are living around the poverty line, buying new cleats is a lot, but shelling out thousands of dollars each year for their kid to play is inconceivable, regardless of how talented they are or how bright a future they have.

The registration costs for players can run thousands of dollars per year, just to step on the field. That’s before you even start talking about additional opportunities for growth and exposure like ID weekends and summer camps required to be seen by high-level coaches, costs associated with trips for far-away tournaments like hotels, transportation and meals on the road, and top-level gear. At the end of the day, the price-tag that comes with trying to compete and gain exposure for players who are excelling in America’s youth soccer system is set in the $5,000-$10,000 range, annually.  It’s a premier cost for any parent to pay and one that our families cannot even consider.


You may know all of these things and you may have seen them in your communities, but we’ve come to learn through this process that if we are not paying close attention to each of these issues, gaps continue to form, putting our players on an uneven field.

Since we’ve developed this method to attack these problems, Open Goal Project has:

·      Watched one of our players compete in an invite-only ID weekend used to identify players for the national team pool.

·      Helped register more than a dozen local players to travel soccer teams

·     Seen another one of our players lead her team to their first Virginia State Cup championship in 40 years

·      Covered registration and costs for numerous players to attend summer and ID camps

·      Provided free clinics and high-level training for dozens of youth players

We don’t know if our method will “fix” issues associated with pay-to-play in the United States, but we do know that it seems to be working to help our players overcome the gaps for us here in DC. 

Open Goal Project remains a work in process, but we remain confident that reaching even one player and giving them the platform and resources to fulfill their natural potential on the field can go a long way in the long run, for our players, for our community as a whole and for the growth of the beautiful game in this country---for all, regardless of socio-economic status.

Open Goal Project