On the night of May 15, 2018, longtime boys soccer coach Scott Steinbrook led Kearney High School to a 1-0 victory over Westside. The win gave Kearney the Class A boys state title and made it the first non-metro school to ever do so in a competition that has existed since the 1980s.
A school from either Lincoln or Omaha, Nebraska’s two largest population centers have won every boys Class A soccer title since 1988.
Kearney, population roughly 33,000, is a smaller community. Most of the players who fill out the boys’ soccer roster are multi-sport athletes, compared to many metro-based athletes who focus on soccer year-round.
Both are certainly factors, but maybe not what’s most important. Almost every player on the Kearney high school roster has zero experience at the highest youth level, compared to more than half of the athletes on teams they face.
Right now the path to soccer success for youth in the United States runs through one elite network of premier youth clubs, the Elite Clubs National League, or ECNL. For players in communities like Kearney, access to that level may not be an option.
With the announcement of the MLS Next academy league and the MLS Next Pro league, U.S. soccer along with its professional pyramid hope to change how the nation’s top athletes are fostered and developed from a young age. The pay-to-play barrier is unique to U.S. soccer, and many claim that its influence has been the driving factor for a lack of widespread U.S. success on the world stage. The landscape is changing, but for many Nebraskan athletes, it’s not changing soon enough.
“The system is broken,” said Terry Fisher who currently serves as CEO for Cal South, one of the biggest player development networks in the United States.
Fisher, who has held soccer leadership positions in the U.S. for more than 45 years said that the U.S Soccer looks at the problem as being too big to tackle.
“They (U.S. Soccer) say, ‘oh youth soccer, that’s a mess’ and then kick it to the curb.” he said.
With roots back to La Jolla, California in the 1990s, coaching directors have spiked costs, and promised parents access to the best coaching for their young athletes. When thousands of new youths flocked to the sport, coaches quickly gained power, and with that power came an incentive to maintain control of the structure.
“They’re still going to keep a grip on getting paid because they like the way it feels to get paid,” Fisher said. “And don’t be delusional to think that coaches will figure it out, because they only want to figure out how much more money they can get per team.”
In the current system a spectrum of athletes exists ranging from those who benefit from the system to those who the system benefits from.
Athletes who don’t have the talent to make it pro, but whose families help fund the clubs, often fill out the B or C-team rosters within massive clubs. While the top talents in the regions receive support regardless of economic status, and the ability to continue playing at the highest level.
“If you got talent, they’ll always find money for you,” Fisher said.
That’s not to escape pennies either, some clubs in Los Angeles are charging $15,000 a year for their kids to play.
“If you’re a rich kid with no talent at all, and you can pay the $5,000, there’s probably a good chance that you could be put into a B-team,” he said. “Because you can pay.”
These clubs are filled with much more of these kids than the ones destined to make soccer their lifelong career.
“Moms and dads are just delusional, that their kid is something better,” Fisher said. “So, we obviously must fill five or six teams per age group in big clubs. Those lower quality kids, their money that the club makes is used to pay for the top two or three teams.”
You see it reflected locally around Lincoln and Omaha as well, albeit on a smaller scale. Nebraska has two ECNL clubs, Sporting Nebraska and the Elita Gretna Academy, which draw from the best of nearby talent to bolster strong rosters.
For athletes who reside close by and are supported with family resources for year-round training, this works. These young athletes are consistently surrounded by the top coaching in the area and have a much better chance to reach their full potential.
But for many of the state’s best athletes, this elite training isn’t within reach.
“(ECNL clubs in Nebraska) recruit based on who can pay for it,” said Michael Ziola, head coach of the Waverly high school boys’ soccer team. “And the majority of that population in Nebraska is Omaha or Lincoln.”
Ziola, who is entering his third season as head coach at Waverly, hopes to create a new pathway for young players. He created the Waverly soccer academy, one of several youth organizations popping up all over the state to be a more affordable option for families.
“It’s one of the reasons why I am a high school coach,” Ziola said. “I want to give as many kids the opportunity to play at a high level as possible. That’s why when we started our youth organization here at Waverly, I really put an emphasis on capping a price.”
Working with one of the heads of Sporting Nebraska, he crafted a yearlong practice plan, complete with drills, volunteer coaches, and equipment.
“We kept them at $450 for jerseys with 12 months worth of soccer,” he said. “And I thought that was more than reasonable.”
Clubs like the Waverly soccer academy are a great option for most of the athletes that play soccer for the year-round experience, without the expectation of reaching the pro level. A different atmosphere than the Gretna Elite Academy or Sporting Nebraska.
“I know people travel from Norfolk or Columbus and do the Gretna Elite Academy,” Ziola added. “And they do get a handful of people. But obviously, that’s a financial burden and time burden if you’re going to be traveling around the state that way.”
In MLS cities like Los Angeles, top talent rarely falls through the cracks. High level scouts are frequently perusing local talent pools to snatch up any promising teenagers. But rural Nebraska doesn’t have that same infrastructure.
“It’s harder in this location, access to facilities and access to coaches,” said Joe Cleary, who helped launch Nebraska soccer talk. “Especially in in smaller towns across the Midwest, where soccer hasn’t been a sport for very long. You’re not going to have a lot of people with that knowledge.”
Nebraska soccer talk is a social media platform dedicated to covering Nebraska soccer at various levels, including youth and high school.
“You can’t really blame cities for that,” he said. “Why would you spend a lot of money on soccer when you can spend more on baseball, football or basketball? Because that impacts a greater percentage of your population.”
The pathway for rural athletes looks much different. Kearney is a trailblazer in non-metro success and has set an example to tow that line.
“Many of our kids that play for Kearney high school, also play for the Kearney soccer club,” Steinbrook said. “The same kids that I coach in the spring in the high school season, they’re playing together in the club season.”
Kearney soccer club is another year-round option, like Waverly that focuses on low-cost for families rather than an elite competitive environment.
In Omaha, the top soccer players are split during the high school offseason, divided up into the two Nebraska-based ECNL clubs. They receive their year-round top training at top prices.
Sprinkle in college showcases, and scouts frequenting games, and top athletes in ECNL clubs rarely miss the chance to turn to the college or pro game. Many of the athletes at Kearney soccer club, simply won’t get the same looks, sometimes despite their talent.
This doesn’t always mean a dead-end. Steinbrook said that during his time as head coach in Kearney, he has seen several of his athletes springboard up from the Kearney soccer club into an ECNL academy.
“I love the fact that they play locally, and we have great chemistry within our club in high school,” he said. “But if they come to me and say, ‘hey coach I think I’m going to go try out at Sporting (Nebraska)’ they have my absolute blessing to go do that.”
Unlike a major MLS market, economic and travel burdens weigh much heavier on athletes in rural Nebraska. Ziola, Cleary, and Steinbrook each know of developing athletes that drive across the state for training multiple times a week.
“You’re thinking gas money, time that you and your parents have to take off from work and you’re also paying club fees,” Cleary said. “It’s like how many hurdles are we going to put up for someone to be successful?”
For those who can’t make those affordances, there simply isn’t a way further. They are bound by the coaching, facilities, and opportunities in their hometown.
However, the tide is turning. As professional level soccer finds its way into the state of Nebraska, players have found different ways to rise to the top. USL League One side Union Omaha have begun scouting many of these untapped communities across the state looking for its next hot prospect.
In the 2021 season, Union Omaha welcomed Lexington high school player Yoscar Galvan onto the roster.
“MLS is a professional environment for children. They have a calendar as motivation and a period of what they call training games, all elements of what a professional player would look like, taken from the best academies in the world,” Fisher said. “The answer is, MLS is helping.”
Only the top 1% of kids are drawn into professional academies, and the motivation for U.S. Soccer should be to help everyone according to Fisher. From a professional level prospect in Kearney to an average youth player in Los Angeles.
“It’s a local conversation, but it also can be kind of elevated up the food chain, in terms of what does the country need to do better,” Steinbrook said. “It trickles down from what you see at the top, to what goes on at local clubs like in Kearney, Nebraska.”
As infrastructure, scouting and identification continue to improve, athletes today will keep dangling with their futures in the balance.
“We would all love for soccer in America to be what it was in 1967,” Fisher said. “A pair of shin guards, some old ratty shoes, and a stupid little ball played in a cow pasture amongst 20 friends. That is a photograph.”