The Equalizer: The U.S. Soccer coaching conundrum

In many spheres of life, better instruction leads to more qualified and developed students. Top universities attract the best professors from their respective fields — and students at such universities often come away more educated and prepared for their professional lives because of their great professors. The global soccer landscape is no different.

Top soccer nations have some of the highest concentrations of high-level coaches in the world. Take Iceland, for example: A country with a population of a paltry 334,252 just astonishingly became the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup. But Iceland’s rise should come as no surprise: It has one of the highest coach-to-player ratios on the planet. Per 100 players, there is one UEFA A-level licensed coach. UEFA coaching licenses, which go from F to A, are the global standard, and acquiring them becomes more time-consuming and intensive as you work up the ladder.

Of course, it’s difficult to extrapolate from a country as small as Iceland. Germany has about 7,000 “A” licensed coaches, or one for every 865 players. Italy has around 2,500, and Spain has a tremendous 15,423.  It’s no coincidence that top national sides in the world also have the highest number of high-level coaches.

Comparatively, in the United States, there are about 6,000 players per UEFA A-level licensed coach — or about 2,500 total such coaches. This is even smaller when you consider the United States’ immense size. Six thousand players per one top-class coach illustrates another damaging aspect of U.S. soccer: There is a huge lack of properly educated coaches. How can players expect to be trained as well as their international counterparts if their coaches simply aren’t as educated as ones internationally? Through the lens of coaching, it should then be no surprise that our domestic game is struggling.

What plagues American coaches from becoming top-level coaches is similar to what plagues American players from becoming top-level players: pay-to-play — that is, pay-to-coach. In the United States, it costs a whopping $4,000 to become an A-level coach. By comparison, it costs a mere $600 to do so in Germany. Prices are similarly lower in Italy and Spain. Coaching licenses are cheap in these countries because their national soccer federations heavily subsidize them.

There has been a lot of talk about what to do with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s (USSF) $100 million surplus. Putting money into coaching education would yield higher quality coaches, and over time, higher quality players.

More well-educated coaches means fewer coaches who focus on winning at the expense of development. It means more kids learning foundations from qualified coaches instead of from parent volunteers who coach out of necessity. And it means more competition among high-level coaching positions themselves, which can only be good for the sport. Coaching in the United States is one of the many undervalued, but integral, reasons why our sport is being held back. Next week I’ll be exploring a more controversial detriment to the growth of our sport: college soccer.