St. Louis MLS Team Aims To Make Soccer More Equitable With Youth Academy
It’s more than a chance to wear the St. Louis City SC crest. It’s a shot at joining a program with a pipeline to playing professional soccer.
More than 250 teenage boys are hustling this spring to land a spot on the roster of St. Louis' new MLS youth soccer academy. The pandemic has delayed St. Louis City SC’s debut season until 2023, which means the organization has extra time to develop its youth academy model.
That model challenges the pay-to-play system that has long ruled competitive youth soccer both locally and nationally. The club is free for any 15- or 16-year-old boys talented enough to make the squad. It’s one of the few no-cost premier youth soccer clubs in the St. Louis region. Parents often spend thousands of dollars a year to keep their kids on elite teams, making wealth key to the development of many young prospects.
“We have that opportunity now to build something from scratch, to get that foundation right, which is our key thing because it can actually change people's lives,” St. Louis City SC Sporting Director Lutz Pfannenstiel said.
Among the hustling hopefuls is 16-year-old Axton Anom.
"I really like the sport, so I'm trying to play at a higher level," Anom said at a recent tryout with the club at Plummer Family Park in Edwardsville. He started playing soccer when he was 4 and has competed both in Italy and around the U.S., as he and his family followed his dad's assignments to different Air Force bases.
Axton's dad, Benjamin, watched from the parking lot and said he hopes his son will make the cut. Benjamin Anom said youth soccer here is much different than where he grew up playing pickup games in Ghana.
“Your parents did not have to be making a certain amount of income to be able to enroll to play in soccer,” Benjamin Anom said. “In the U.S., you realize that it is much more organized. But with such organization comes a price.”
Club soccer fees are not a financial burden for him and his wife, but he said supporting Axton’s dream costs in other ways. “The sacrifices are just enormous,” Benjamin Anom said. “It is just a big deal [and costs] time, money, risk, traveling.”
Scores of families like the Anoms make sacrifices for their kids to play competitive soccer in the region. And financial assistance in youth club soccer remains rare.
Jeff Muhr coaches over 500 Missouri kids in an Olympic training program, as the director of coaching and player development for the Missouri Youth Soccer Association. Only a small fraction of those athletes, around 20 or so, are on full or partial scholarship.
Too often, Muhr said, kids are excluded from the game solely because of their parents’ income.
“That should never, ever happen in our community, in our country, where we've got so many resources,” Muhr said. “Unfortunately, youth soccer and youth sports, in general, has a huge business element to it.”
Most top leagues collect dues to maintain fields and pay for equipment, travel and coaches. But not all. Nearly every MLS team offers a competitive, free youth academy.
Soon, almost a third of MLS players could be scouted from these academies, according to ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman. He knows the local pay-to-play system well. Twellman is a native St. Louisan and a former MLS and U.S. National Team player.
St. Louis is a fractured region, starkly divided by income, which often determines who has access to top soccer programs, Twellman said.
“You have to develop the inner city. You have to develop the underdeveloped parts of St. Louis in order for this thing to really work, for this thing to really prosper,” he said.
St. Louisans like to think of the region as “America’s first soccer capital,” but existing inequities within the pay-to-play model have limited the region’s ability to develop players. And the problem isn’t unique to St. Louis. It is a national issue that Twellman says has contributed to the underperformance of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team (which has failed to qualify for the past three Olympic Games) and the Men’s World Cup team (which fell short of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia).
“At some point [soccer] in the United States has to stop becoming an elite sport,” Twellman said in a 2017 interview on ESPN. “It has to become a grassroots sport. It has to become an inner-city sport.”
Pfannenstiel, from St. Louis City SC, said it will take five to seven years to develop more equitable access to the sport in the region.
“We have to be patient,” Pfannenstiel said. “And I think we have a great ownership group which is patient about that and very passionate when it comes to creating young talent here, local talent.”
St. Louis City SC’s academy model will eventually expand to include a total of four youth teams, plus an under-21 development team.
The organization also plans to provide free community training to kids under 13, create more green spaces in neighborhoods and develop programs to train coaches at high schools and other youth clubs.
Back at the field in Edwardsville, Pfannenstiel’s eyes dart between gray T-shirts and neon yellow pennies during the tryout in mid-April. The 15- and 16-year-old boys sprint across the green turf, making plays they hope will impress the coaches. Pfannenstiel said these are the best ages to start the academy’s first club teams because the average age of an MLS-drafted player is around 17.
In total, nearly 300 boys are trying out for the local academy teams. That group will be whittled down to 46 players who will participate in the MLS Next League, which includes 113 elite clubs and MLS academies around the U.S. and Canada. Pfannenstiel says he hopes to sign at least one of those homegrown players to be on St. Louis City SC’s pro squad in time for its first match in two years.
“It will be a strong big message to the future of the club if we really show straight away with our first team which plays MLS that we already have some local boys from our academy involved,” Pfannenstiel said.
The tryouts in Edwardsville were the first out of three open trials. The last is this weekend at Cardinal Ritter High School in St. Louis. The youth teams hit the pitch this August.
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