The U.S. World Cup Team Is Notably Diverse, but the Pipeline Needs Help

There’s much to celebrate now. And yet, as Armstrong and anyone else who cares about American soccer and its long-term viability knows, the current team also obscures a bitter truth.

Beyond the elite of the elite, a lot has stayed the same. “Everyone knows access is a problem and soccer is largely viewed as a rich white kid sport,” said no less than the U.S. Soccer president, Cindy Cone, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in May. “I am not going to rest until every kid who wants to play our game has not only the access to our game but the opportunity to succeed.”

As with other sports seeking to widen the demographic and talent pool of young players — tennis and baseball, for example — this is an issue that is partly economic and partly about how hard it is to blast away entrenched stereotypes held by people of all races about who can thrive at what sports.

In a country where institutional racism and segregation have made gaining wealth a sometimes-insurmountable hurdle for most Black and brown families, cost is keeping soccer from fulfilling its true promise. The Aspen Institute recently found that the price of a typical youth soccer season hovered around $1,188 — more than the sum required of families by baseball and basketball. Football, less reliant on travel teams, costs about half as much.

No wonder soccer’s participation rate among young people is stuck in a grinding cycle of bumps and dips that keep the game from gaining traction. For children aged 6 to 12, participation in outdoor soccer stood at 10.4 percent in 2009, dipped to 7.4 percent in 2018, rose the following year, and dropped to 6.2 percent during 2020, according to the Aspen Institute.

Ask Armstrong about this, and he is unsparing. He has spent much of the last decade in Nashville, trying to get children there to play a game that has become entrenched in suburbia, and focusing as much attention as he can on steering young people of color to the game and raising them through the ranks.

His Heroes Soccer Club has 550 players and multiple teams, from recreation level to elite. He makes up for what he lacks in dedicated facilities with gumshoe resolve, hopscotching across the city to find available space on public fields and often paying his players’ entry fees and providing clothing. The young players range the spectrum economically. Some are white, others Black and Latino. There are migrants from Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South and Central America.