Assessing Youth Soccer Joy and Development, and The Need For Change

I would like to discuss and assess today Joy and Development of youth Soccer in the USA. It’s extremely important that I share first that these are very complex issues and I will not claim that simple answers will “fix” the problem. I will simply state some clear facts and make the case that there is a need for change to increase Joy and to increase Development. I will go as far as to say, those should be the two things we measure at all times in youth soccer and in that order.


What Are We Addressing? Joy & Development of Youth Soccer in USA.

Why? With millions of youth soccer players participating in this sport, today I want to do my best to assess and address the joy and the development that takes place during youth soccer and the need to adjust based on the best assessment criteria.

Who is Involved? Players, coaches, parents, referees, organizations.

What is the Criteria to Measure Joy & Development Based On? Let me first clarify that the criteria of my assessment in soccer joy and development (and I am assuming in any other area) will be based in 4 areas: opinions, experience, standards, research. It is VERY important to understand each of the 4 in this criteria are valued for what they are and offer. 

  • Opinions: are to be respected and everyone is entitled of course to their opinion. However, the weight that opinions carry when it comes to making decisions, is the and should be the smallest, since it does not provide enough meaningful reasons for a decision to be made. So, when one wants to suggest “a way” for joy and development, it will be very difficult to convince most (and me) with just an opinion. 
  • Experience: carries a bit more weight, because it does matter, since it captures and describes the “real” environment. However, it remains low when it comes down to making deeply educated decisions. This is rightfully so, because experiences have many, many variables, so it is difficult to assume that is the way, but of course there is a lot to learn from.
  • Standards: hopefully are based on some research, experience and such. Therefore, many times (but not always), carry a good weight when it comes to adhering to standards. For example: it is an established standard of this game that training sessions should be 60-90 minutes long. 
  • Research: is a great way to extract real quality information. One can choose to ignore research of course, however the value of opinion, experience or standards is lower than research, if the effort remains to learn, grow, innovate and continue to move forward.


Research on Joy:

  • There is some evidence that in US Soccer, 7 out of 10 drop out of soccer by age 13
  • There is some evidence that 1.2 million kids have quit sports (not soccer but all sports) since 2019
  • Some evidence suggests that 70% of kids drop out of sports by age 13

While there are many reasons listed (including that when kids are much younger they do many sports and eventually drop out of some), the most common is “I don’t enjoy it anymore.” Here is some more research, some evidence suggests that 1% of players goes pro and 0.5% get injured, so only about 0.5% reach that. 

Research on Development: 

  • Number of Registered Youth Soccer Players in USA: Even though there is an estimated 2.5 – 3 million registered youth soccer players in US, they are still not able to produce higher level players.
  • Number of Registered Players in Croatia: For a simple analysis, Croatia had around 6 thousand registered players in 2010.
  • Number of Pro US Players in Europe: According to an ESPN report, during the 2022-2023 season, there were 26 players from US playing in top European Leagues
  • Number of Pro Croatian Players in Europe: According to Yahoo news info, Croatia had 407 players playing in the top European Leagues during 2024. In addition, according to total croatia news, Croatia is the 8th largest exporter of soccer players

Possible Solutions Based on Research:

Action Item: Develop this concept to build success by:

  • Establishing standards for coach requires and maintain high standards
  • Create possibilities where there is a lot more educational possibilities for all and make it possible 
  • Project & Clarity: Make youth soccer a project with clear goals for all ages and developmental guidelines. Provide 100% clarity what are clubs, coaches, and all to establish and by what age and how it will be measured. It is time to have full clarity here. It is true, there will always be some variables here, but we must start with clarity.

Action Item: build a 3, 5, 10, 20 year project, with details and based on respected research not replicating another system.

  • Sustainable: create a system that avoids burning out youth players with extreme  distance travel. This is complex of course, but the value surpasses that, and a must for young kids.

Action Item: build a project where players receive great competition but without traveling thousands of miles a year.

  • Build a Player Culture Where Work & Education is Valued and not Secrets: create clarity that technical improvements is not something one can get done in one week, but instead work and work. Clarify the process of technique, individual tactics, small group tactics, large group tactics and systems of play and strategy. When you watch teams play, it is very clear that the 4 early building blocks above are really underdeveloped.
  • Measure Joy & Development: regularly and improve it each year
  • Futsal & Soccer Development: According to the talent code, Futsal is one of the greatest accelerators toward soccer development, it is time US Soccer honors and respects evidence. “From Pelé onward virtually every great Brazilian player played futsal as a kid, first in the neighborhood and later at Brazil’s soccer academies, where from ages seven to around twelve they typically devoted three days a week to futsal.”

Notice, I could have said most greatest world soccer players come from Futsal, but instead I am providing clear evidence in an effort to provide clarity.

I must confess that it is always harder to build a building that discusses it. The same applies for quality soccer. However, it is time we create a project, take risk, do something different, innovate versus replicate and above all, speak with *humble) facts.

Love the beautiful game, Forge yourself.

Ilir Lushaj