Tim Howard describes the offer by Tim Mulqueen – the then-goalkeeping coach of the Rutgers University’s men’s team – as “important, as life-altering as any I’ve ever had”.
The offer in question arrived in 1991 and was for Mulqueen to waive his standard $25 fee for private coaching sessions and make an exception for the promising young Jerseyite.
Howard’s mother Esther had managed to scrape together an initial $25 for a clinic with Mulqueen very much as a one-off. There was no way she could afford to pay it again.
But Howard, said Mulqueen, “had something”. He had demonstrated that in the solitary session he had with him.
True to his word, Mulqueen never charged the Howard household for his services from then on.
It wasn’t long before young Tim worked his way through to the United States Olympic Development Training Program and earned his stellar international career.
But it all started there: had Esther not stumped up the initial $25 or had Mulqueen insisted on full payment for his services, then maybe Howard would never have been found.
This is a risk still associated with the widespread ‘pay-to-play’ system in the US, where parents have to shell out for their youngsters to participate with elite youth clubs. Without that money – or a lucky break like Howard’s – then talents from lower socio-economic backgrounds can slip through the cracks.
Football Stateside is still regarded as the game of the suburbs as opposed to its perception in much of the rest of the world – where often it can be the only route a poor family can take to escape from poverty.
The football world is full of stories of sacrifice, hunger and hardship, with young players grinding through despite their lack of privileges or maybe even because of them. In the USA, it’s a route that’s even harder to find.
And if you think $25 for one specialist goalkeeping session is steep, then consider the fees charged at the US’s premier youth football clubs.
National team right-back DeAndre Yedlin spent time in his youth at the Emerald City club in Washington. Current fees for under-11 players run at about $1,300 per season. A uniform will set you back another $250 – $350. Then, there’s the team fees, which depend upon which tournaments are entered.
Brad Guzan’s first club? Chicago Magic. Fees? $25 for a try-out and $2,095 upon registration.
What about Boca Raton Junior Soccer Club where Jozy Altidore spent some time? The ‘Academy Program’ for top-level players aged 14-23 charges $3,000 per month plus $125 for a uniform.
On the other coast, the renowned Patedores club charges parents of players between the ages of 11 and 13 around $1,950 per season.
Those payments come with some pretty heavy terms and conditions attached, including a potential 25 per cent charge in late fees every month.
Like other clubs, Patedores has scholarships available to talented players whose families might not be able to afford the fees. Even those are caveated, while stories circulate of some parents complaining to those of scholarship recipients: “I am paying for your kid to be here.”
What if the scholar decides he doesn’t like it anymore? Remember, these are children, after all, but the Patedores conditions nonetheless state: “If the player does not fulfil his commitment for the entire season, then he shall forfeit his scholarship and all club and teams fees are expected to be paid in full by the family prior to the player’s release.
“In the event that the player leaves the team, the balance of the player fees need to be paid in full before the player can transfer to another team. No refunds will be given after the first day of training.”
Plainly put, if a parent does not have at least $2,000 that they’re willing to lose in order to support a child’s access to elite teams, then they can forget about it.
Some of the other members of the USMNT needed Cinderella stories of their own to make it. Midfielder Jorge Villafaña won a reality show called Sueño MLS to earn a trial at Chivas USA in 2007. He’s never looked back. Without it, though, where would he be?
Darlington Nagbe, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya, meanwhile, no doubt benefitted from the fact their fathers were either professional players or coaches.
The typical story of poor boy makes good in American soccer would appear relatively rare – perhaps surprising in the self-styled ‘land of opportunity’.
Clint Dempsey went along when his brother, Ryan, was invited by the Dallas Texans for a trial as a teenager. The coach of the under-11s took notice of the younger Dempsey and was sufficiently impressed to give Clint a shot of his own.
The Dempseys scrimped, saved and father Aubrey even sold his boat and hunting guns to fund Clint’s burgeoning career. At one point, the family invested in a motor home to cut down on the hotel bills run up on the three-hour each-way trip from their home in east Texas to Dallas.
They had to sacrifice Clint’s football when sister Jenny became a junior-ranked tennis player, and money and time for both sports ran tight.
Dempsey was, however, eventually brought back into the fold thanks to the determination of his parents and his own savage drive following the tragic death of his sister.
His background is typical to other professionals from around the world only with fees – and fees the family could scarcely afford – attached. He was raised in a trailer on his grandparents’ land in Nacogdoches, Texas, playing street football with his Mexican neighbours and even participated in men’s leagues in his hometown in between his ‘elite’ matches in Dallas.
It wasn’t long before he earned a scholarship to Furman in South Carolina and he hasn’t looked back since.
But where would he be if his father hadn’t had a boat to sell or the family had decided that the slim shot he had at a college degree through football – let alone a career in the game itself – wasn’t worth it?
There would appear to be progress made with the formation of the US Soccer Development Academy 10 years ago. Some clubs affiliated to this program are still charging but youth divisions of MLS teams are subsidised.
Plenty of US internationals are coming through this pathway, including Nagbe, Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta and Jordan Morris. The player, however, has to be spotted first.
It remains an extraordinary event if a poor child with talent ends up making it in the USA – and not necessarily because he can’t be seen, but because he can’t pay to get in front of the right people.
How many Howards or Dempseys have slipped out of the system because their parents couldn’t afford to keep them there?
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