Re-Aligning the American Pyramid: Phil Baki
A city’s soccer story is often told by those at the top but how do smaller clubs find their place in the shadow of big clubs and youth academies? So much of El Paso’s soccer stories this year have come via the inaugural season for local USL side El Paso Locomotive FC. The reality is that the professional club only captures a small percentage of the actual game played in the city. From the recreational leagues that play in parks and gyms across town, to the amateur clubs Southwest FC and FC Grande in nearby Las Cruces, there are plenty of people in the game that do not fall under the umbrella of Locomotive. Within this ecosystem, the resource that will always be at a premium for amateur clubs is talented kids. This talent is often tough to tap into when an amateur club is surrounded by powerful academies promising a path to professionalism or youth academies that bring in talents on the basis that they’ll be able to get a college scholarship. FC Dallas has had an academy in El Paso for years, in which hundreds of kids have played but only three have made it all the way to the senior squad. This type of talent saturation in certain setups is great for the team that the academy supports, but it makes it nearly impossible to identify all the talented players in an area. If a city has amateur clubs that compete in leagues that matter and that are broadcast outside of their immediate area, the opportunities can multiply quickly. Amateur clubs must remain a viable destination for high caliber players for our soccer ecosystem to truly flourish and they have two distinct advantages over their youth academy and travel club counterparts.
Friday, April 20th, 2019, two High School boys’ teams from El Paso went away to the Texas State Soccer Championships and both came back with the big prize. Bel Air High School on the east side of town claimed the 5A Boys’ Championship with Ivar Arroyo scoring the winner 17 minutes from time and San Elizario from East El Paso County took home the 4A title on the back of Martin Rodriguez’s 18th minute goal. Two talented teams from the same area proving to be the best in class out of an entire state full of soccer talent. What are these players doing at the moment aside from pursuing that high school diploma? They’re likely playing in youth travel clubs who play tournaments around the area, with the idea they will go play in college at some point. The reality is that these players would benefit from playing for amateur sides for a number of reasons, but it is on these clubs to make local talent see them as a destination. Let’s talk about how they go about that.
Competition That Matters
If your local amateur sides play in a national league like the NPSL or UPSL, this should be an easier task. The key is communicating to players that your club is one at which they can achieve something tangible. This is not the Kenosha Invitational Tournament, this is a legitimate national league that provides players opportunities to come up against some truly talented squads. The struggle these clubs endure to even reach the playoffs in their league is immense and players who are motivated to play at higher levels should relish the challenge.
Amateur clubs also have the ability to compete in the US Open Cup (as limited as those chances are becoming). When the crowd gathered to watch Southwest FC take on FC Denver in the 4th Qualifying Round just a few weeks ago, there was likely not one player there who would try to convince you that the game was not one of the most important of their careers. Two teams giving everything to get into the Open Cup is why most of us love the sport in the first place. The competition, the passion, the absolute boundaries of physical and mental endurance being reached as clubs battle for that final spot. Giving players opportunities like that where they know the stakes are high will draw more players away from the travel clubs waving around scholarships in exchange for thousands of dollars.
One thing that a player who has played at Travel Clubs and High School/College levels has probably never experienced (or at least very rarely) is a crowd at a match. As Josh Duder pointed out in his excellent “Re-Aligning” piece, social media is crucial in this approach but the bottom line is that you have to turn your matches into an event. If people are coming to your games, the players are going to realize that this is not just some men’s league that they’re in but a serious competition with stakes. Nothing raises the stakes quite like a crowd of people who’s paid to see a match. The next step is getting those who cannot physically be at a match involved too.
One of the beautiful things of this ultra-connected world we live in is that if there is a soccer game being played in the United States at any serious level (really anywhere in the world) I can jump on either Youtube or MyCujoo and find it. The clubs operating in these national and regional leagues have to do two main things when it comes to this visibility. The stream is a gift, allowing a club to spread it’s play and it’s players across a much broader audience. It can be a curse as well, if clubs do not execute it well. A bad stream, with either a shaky camera or poor lighting… really the list of pitfalls could go on for awhile, is an immediate turn-off for many potential viewers. The investment to make a quality broadcast is extremely minimal compared to the potential benefits, and the players will benefit as well. As a club, you are proud of your players, let other people see why and not through a grainy 240p stream that looks like it’s straight off of a 2004 Myspace music video. The addition of commentary can help even further, as it helps add context and connection between the audience and your players. When you think of many of the things that attracts us to the bright lights of professional soccer, it’s often the sense of connection with the players. They do not have a monopoly on that as the amateur clubs are often much more connected to the community. Give the broader community that same opportunity through how you present your club.
Just because they do not monopolize the soccer stories in El Paso does not mean that Locomotive cannot still be used as an example of what I am advocating. Several players under contract with Locomotive have played in the NPSL, but Memo Diaz and Louis “Chapa” Herrera are the two easiest examples of players being given a chance at a lower level before being handed their professional contracts. Memo was one of the NPSL’s players of the year with Laredo Heat and Chapa was spotted at the Alianza de Futbol Tournament in California. The bottom line is that if clubs give players the incentive to join, the opportunity is there to pursue the professional dream while avoiding the costs of travel clubs or the oversaturated academies of clubs 800 miles from home.