Soccer in the United States is very competitive. But not in the ways other soccer-playing countries are competitive.
Other countries (think Brazil and many African nations) have a culture of the general population playing the game on the beaches, the streets, the sandlots, and anywhere else they can find. Some other countries (think Germany and other European nations) have a strong central federation that gets everyone on the same program.
The USA has neither of these things. U.S. Soccer's recent mandates on small-sided games (generally sound, if a little too demanding in terms of equipment) and birth-year age groups (misguided) stand out because they are such an aberration.
Instead, the USA has a mosaic of youth leagues, organizations and clubs, each doing things a little differently and often getting in each other's way. We're a democratic and capitalist country, and in soccer, we take those traits to the extreme.
What does that mean to you as a parent?
It means you have to be wary. A lot of coaches and clubs are peddling nonsense and expecting you to pay top dollar.
Here are a few of the things you'll hear that aren't quite true:
1. Good soccer players specialize in soccer at an early age. Not true. All of the professional players I interviewed for the book Single-Digit Soccer played something else in early childhood, and several of them stuck with basketball, hockey or something else into high school before finally committing to the Beautiful Game. Academic research reinforces the value of avoiding specialization, which is why every organization from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the old Communist bloc sports factories (see Tom Farrey's book Game On, specifically the "Age 2" chapter) has encouraged players to play multiple sports.
2. Our club needs to travel several hours for routine league games and much farther for tournaments to find competition on our level. If you're in a remote area, perhaps. When I spoke at the NSCAA (national coaches) convention in January, a couple of coaches from Alaska and Nebraska insisted that they do indeed need to spend a lot of time in the car.
But what we're seeing in densely populated areas like the Washington, D.C., metro area is a proliferation of "elite" leagues, all promising a different variation of the same story -- we've partnered with clubs that share a similar "player-centric" or "club-centric" philosophy. These days, everyone at least says that, and you're driving past several comparable clubs to get to that league game.
In more traditional leagues, by the time you reach the late elementary years, teams are tiered, based on past performance, so they can play teams on the same level. The "elite" leagues are self-selected, so you have no guarantees. You may face a team that's light-years ahead of the competition. Or you may face a team that had all its best players poached away by another club.
3. This is how it's done in Europe. No matter what your coach says you're doing that's similar to Europe, it's probably not. That's the rationale you'll hear for U.S. Soccer's new insistence upon grouping players by birth year rather than school year, and it's simply not true at the grassroots level.
The way it's done in Europe, particularly in strong soccer-development countries like Germany and Iceland (yes, Iceland), usually entails having massive numbers of qualified volunteer and part-time coaches who go out and work with everyone they can.
The European way does not entail spending large sums of money to hire a full-time coach and travel all over a continent.
4. This will all pay off when my child gets that scholarship. It won't, unless your child abruptly switches to football (the American kind) or maybe women's rowing. NCAA Division I schools are limited to 9.9 scholarships for men's teams and 14 for women's teams. (See Bylaw 15.5.3 of the 2015-16 NCAA Division I Manual.) That means even if you're one of the 5 to 7 percent of high school players who make it to any college team, you're in rarified air if you get the precious "full ride" scholarship. More likely, you'll get nothing other than preferential admission (which some parents are indeed willing to pay for) or you'll get a partial scholarship that doesn't come close to matching what you've spent on soccer over the years.
So what CAN you do?
Be a consumer. You wouldn't buy a car just because a salesman insists you have to.
Make sure your local coach or club knows you're no sucker. You want the truth. Where's my money going? Why are we practicing this way or this many times a week? Why are we traveling by airplane to a tournament?
Your best deal might still be with one of these "elite" leagues -- they attract good coaches and good players, and your kid may love it. It might be with a travel league that's a little more low-key. It might be with recreational soccer, coached by parents who truly care about your kids and often have exactly the same qualifications as the people you're paying to coach your "travel" kids.
And it's OK to think in the short term. Sure, you want your child to keep learning to get better, but don't obsess over distant goals. Make sure your child is developing as a person as well as a player.
Because enjoying this sport is one thing we can have in common with other countries.