Driving through Brooklyn recently, I was amazed at how many kids were kicking soccer balls on what appeared to be every patch of concrete.
A decade ago, many might have been playing basketball. But more of them have taken to wearing jerseys with the names of European-based superstars like Messi (Lionel Messi of Argentina plays for Barcelona in Spain), Ronaldo (Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal plays for Juventus in Italy) and Neymar (Neymar da Silva Santos of Brazil plays for Paris Saint-Germain in France) proudly emblazoned on the back.
Indeed, spring has seen turf fields around the city — like Pier 5 or Prospect Park-Caton Road in Brooklyn or those on the West Side Highway — teeming with budding players. New York is a city of immigrants and soccer — or football, as it is known in most countries, the most popular sport in the world. Why, then, do so few NYC-based teams feature in the top youth rankings in the country?
The top 20 teams in my daughter’s 12-and-younger group, according to gotsoccer.com, are dominated by clubs from Northern California and the New York-New Jersey suburbs. Her team, Clarkstown, is based in Rockland County. When I take her to tournaments, I never see a team from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens or Staten Island, even though the passion is obviously there. Manhattan Soccer Club, which trains on Randall’s Island, is at times an exception.
The reason has to be the facilities. When you get out of the city, sprawling fields are available. The most talented city kids are forced to trek out of their neighborhoods to play at an elite level. New York’s Major League Soccer teams, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls, have youth academies that draw NYC’s best talent, but are based in the suburbs.
Another factor is cost. Unlike in Europe, where youth soccer is free at top academies, in America, it usually comes with a heavy price tag. It’s common for top academies to charge up to $4,000 a year in fees alone. There’s an ongoing debate about why the U.S. national men’s team continues to struggle internationally. Until soccer is nurtured at the grassroots and made affordable and accessible for all, some of New York’s promising talents will fall by the wayside.
Jeff Vasishta is a writer and music journalist who lives in Crown Heights.