During Hispanic Heritage Month, the United States men’s national team announced a “Cultural Connections Campaign” to celebrate the month. The partnership was mostly symbolic, as the U.S. Soccer Federation sought to sell specific merchandise that has designs inspired by Latin culture, with portions of the proceeds to be donated to Ricardo Pepi’s elementary school. The U.S. Federation explained this project was meant to showcase Pepi’s story and the story of Hispanics around the country.
“This initiative was inspiring for me to get behind in an effort to not only bring visibility to the millions of Hispanic-Americans in our country, but to connect them all through soccer,” said Pepi. “There are millions of stories like mine in this beautiful country, and we are all proud to represent the diversity of our Hispanic heritage, together united.”
One thing that is not mentioned in the statement released by the federation is that millions of Hispanics in the U.S. can’t afford to live out their dream to even play local academies, let alone suit up for a national team or for a major European team, which Pepi does.
Due to the high cost of joining soccer academies, many families who are disadvantaged cannot afford to play in these academies. A study revealed that it can cost a family on average $6,000 – $7,000 a year to put just one child in a soccer academy. Low-income families often cannot afford that rate, particularly if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck. Current statistics show the average median income for a Hispanic household is just under $58,000 and $50,000 for a Black household, compared to over $77,000 for both White and Asian households.
The difficulty for families across the nation to afford a spot in a soccer academy places limits on these players’ ability to make progress in professional sports. Academies are the gateway toward being scouted by professional soccer leagues like the MLS or USL, or more importantly colleges and universities. Without a soccer academy, prospective players are limited in their chances of making it far in the American soccer ecosystem.
After the game between the U.S. and Germany, Pepi was confronted by these same points and his response to the issue of pay-to-play is a true representation of its current state.
“To be honest we have always had this problem,” explained Pepi. “Personally I had a problem before; some families don’t have enough money to give their kids opportunities and I feel like as a country and as a sport, we need to be able to help those families and make it cheaper in a way, so we can keep developing a lot of talent…there [is] some lost talent because of how expensive it is; I feel like as a community and as a country we can work on [this] and maybe we can help some of the kids.”
These comments made by Pepi are a stark contrast to the comments made by MLS commissioner Don Garber, who claimed he did not agree with the U.S. women’s national team Alex Morgan’s claim that the pay-to-play model was “detrimental to the future of the game.” Keep in mind the MLS is the top division soccer league in the country, a league that many players in academies strive for when attempting to become homegrown players in their respective markets.
Pepi is right, much talent is lost. When you look at nations around the world that do not have a pay-to-play system, you see youth from all ethnic backgrounds having an equal chance of making it big in professional play. This talent that falls through the cracks can also explain why the U.S. and MLS are not producing the quality necessary to keep up with homegrown talent being produced overseas.
There is a long way to go for the pay-to-play system to receive the overhaul that is needed. Granted, it’s easier said than done. There have been new initiatives launched such as “MLS Next Pro” and “MLS Go” created in an effort to increase accessibility for youth around the nation.
One way the pay-to-play system can be reformed is through expanding where academics are located. Many towns are left behind when it comes to the development of soccer, including often overlooked cities that would provide youth to play for a team without having to go through the burden of traveling. For example, many states do not have access to the aforementioned programs such as MLS Next Pro and MLS Go. One does not have to look further than Connecticut, which not only has no MLS Representation but also no access to the MLS Go academy programs. While local states do have markets, many families simply do not have the time or funds needed to travel long distances for training.
Another way pay-to-play can be reformed is continuing to build on the U.S Soccer Development Academy Scholarship Program. This program provides for the support of player scholarships. Expanding on this and providing more for youth while also promoting it more would relieve the economic stress on many underprivileged families. The fact is, the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to invest more in its philanthropic efforts, with the message that those contributing are a key part of the change. With a World Cup coming up, the pitch for investors to give to a cause to expand the sport for all is one that could be effective. As a nonprofit organization, the federation needs to effectively operate as one. This is a key difference between Europe and the U.S. While the U.S sees youth academy as an area to create profit, Europe sees it as an investment opportunity.
With the sport growing in the U.S. and with the upcoming 2026 World Cup expected to push the sport forward, making sure all families have a chance to play is crucial for the integrity and development of the sport.