By Kyle Santangelo ’26 Associate
What was once called the beautiful game is becoming a political and pay-to-play system for those involved. Widely played around the world, the game of soccer is growing rapidly in the United States. Since European soccer is known as the highest level at which a player can compete at, more American-born players are traveling to Europe to reach their highest potential. International competitions including the 2026 World Cup will be held in the United States, and young players can develop their skills with newly founded teams. However, youth players can only develop their skills if they have the financial resources to do so.
The US youth soccer system isn’t like any youth system around the world. The system consists of six different leagues where competition increases the higher a player progresses whereas in the United Kingdom there are over 300 youth leagues. The system is as follows: Town Recreational, Town Travel, Youth Academy, National League, Development Player League, Major League Soccer (MLS) Next. Town travel teams attract players that haven’t played before while MLS Next teams are perceived as the next generation of MLS players.
Typically, MLS Next teams, called academies, can provide scholarships and financial aid to their players. This is due to funding received from the owners and investors of the professional team. Since they want to see the professional team succeed, academies are the pipeline to help the team succeed in the future. However, what happens if a youth player doesn’t live close to an MLS academy, or if the financial burden is too large for the player and family involved? The youth player will have to take a step down the ladder and play for a lower league. The lower leagues from town teams to the development player league are not free either. While town teams are cheaper as they are not for developing players, a team in the development player league charges between $2,500 and $5,000 per player. Some teams have been found charging families upwards of $6,000 per player.
For most families, they do not have enough money to sign their child or children up for a full season of soccer. This means most players are forced to play for a lower league instead of the higher and well recognized leagues. At the lower levels, many players do not receive the attention and development they need to be successful in the sport. Most lower leagues are playing on bumpy fields, have volunteer coaches, and have strange practice times. Since these teams do not have a structure, most players are not able to reach the next level as many clubs, colleges, or academies do not take lower leagues seriously.
A team in downtown Los Angeles is tackling this problem. Downton Los Angeles Soccer Club is focused on changing the pay-to-play system and the way lower leagues are viewed. Downtown was founded with one goal in mind, allowing children in poverty to enjoy the beautiful game. The club charges a monthly fee of $25 instead of a lump sum of $5000 or more. The club and players have faced many challenges such as broken lights, racist hecklers, and poor field conditions, but those challenges did not stop the teams. Instead, they are now sponsored by Nike and have a brand-new turf field to play on. They travel to different states and regions to showcase their skills.
Downtown Los Angeles Soccer Club is paving the way for the future of youth soccer. It provides players with an affordable way to develop their skills and attract interest from higher level clubs and academies. More clubs and academies need to focus on developing players rather than leaving families with a financial burden. The average value of an MLS has increased by 85% since 2019. More investors are noticing the rise in the beautiful game and are allowing MLS teams to grow exponentially. While the status of the professional team grows, the youth players are not receiving the same type of investment. With the United States on the verge of hosting the 2026 World Cup, impactful players are being overlooked because of financial costs. If the United States wants to make history, why charge youth players to enjoy the beautiful game?
Kyle is a second-year student from Derry, NH who is pursuing a degree in Analytical Economics with a minor in coaching. Kyle is on the UNH Club Soccer Team and works for the UNH Marketing Department as a sports photographer. At UNH, Kyle is part of the Shaw Explorers program and is an Inclusive Leadership Fellow. He has a part-time internship with BAE Systems in their quality department. He is active in the Stock Market and has a passion for personal finance. He joined the fund to learn the principles of venture capital and to learn ways to further develop his entrepreneurial ideas.