“Free-Play” Soccer in the USA

My name is Mike Slatton and I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I played soccer because I couldn’t catch or hit a baseball (10 years old), and American football was thought to be too dangerous – even in 1977. Youth soccer registration was only $25, the uniform was $35 and cleats were just $20. The club was 100% volunteer. My mother (Anita Slatton) was my first coach, because the dads in the room wouldn’t do it. She knew nothing about the game, so she went to the local library and got a book on “the Dutch Method“.

We were poor. We had no cable TV, no video games. We didn’t even have air conditioning. I had a soccer ball though, and I used to juggle that ball all the time. It made me a good ball handler.  However, because I didn’t have anyone to play with very often, I never really mastered the ability to predict or anticipate what others would do, when they approached me or when I approached them.


Soccer in America, sadly, hasn't changed much over the last 4 decades.  The game is still dominantly managed by youth "clubs" and since the soccer community is so sprawled out, there is a severe lack of opportunities for kids to just get together after school and play freely, without adults coaching them.

“Free play” is the missing piece in our youth sports culture.

When children go out and freely play soccer with other children of varying ages and skill levels, they improve prediction and reaction skills that they can use in real game situations. You can’t teach these things in practice because there isn't enough time. Athletes need to experience and learn at their own pace and interest level. The more free-play participation young athletes encounter, the more patterns of behavior they will see, making it easier to predict an opponent’s action in real games.

Free-play is the single thing that America lacks, and we can never win a World Cup until we fix it.

The key is “varying ages and skill levels“. Younger players playing against older players increase reaction speed and reflexes, while learning skills “beyond their years“.

Older players benefit tremendously by being able to practice moves and strategies against lesser experienced and younger players, in an environment free of ridicule and criticism from ill-qualified coaches and over-bearing parents.

The best players in the world played extensively “in the streets“. Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Ronaldinho and the legend, Pele all freely played the game in unstructured, unsupervised environments, that allowed them to experiment and learn the game from more experienced players.

Of course, the term “streets” is both inferred literally and as a metaphor for free-play on community futsal courts, parks & open pitches.

These are things you find in a soccer culture.


free play soccerIn the United States, we don’t build communities around parks/soccer fields like you will find in South America and Europe, and we don’t install futsal courts in those same communities. Instead, EVERYTHING is reliant on vehicles to transport us to places in an organized manner, to a predetermined destination, at a scheduled time. The soccer fields are all “professionally managed” by soccer clubs, who lock up the goals when THEY are not using them.
As a result of the over-management and scheduling of America’s youth soccer activities, 2018 will see the lowest youth soccer participation numbers in the last 20 years. And if you just look at the boys numbers, it’s even more drastic than you can imagine.

You can blame video games, but video games are just the alternative – not the cause.

Today, youth soccer in America is strictly a paid-for service, sold to middle and upper-middle class kids, who have the transportation and money to participate. Those without the resources to play club soccer, are forced to drive even further away, to play futsal in church gymnasiums or pick-up soccer in open fields.

American “talent“, of course, is not discovered in American club soccer, because club soccer doesn’t develop any. Club soccer is just what it sounds like: A club. A club available to those who can afford MEMBERSHIP.

Instead, our talent comes in the form of one-offs who avoid club soccer, or only use it as a social outlet for their children. Kids like Christian Pulisic, who’s father had him training with the semi-pro teams that he coached, as a young teen.

What? The MLS and USL are full of club soccer players?

Yes. Yes, they are. And those teams all have American national team players on them… who cannot even qualify for the World Cup.


Community leaders – with interest in soccer – need to take the lead on this, with support and help from the US Soccer Federation – SEPARATE from local soccer clubs. Over the years, local soccer clubs have had ample opportunity to help the situation, but are so profit driven, that they will never get behind a GENUINE free-play initiative.

MARTA soccer, free play soccerJust take a look at Atlanta and their “Soccer in the Streets” program. Sanjay Patel arrived in Atlanta and wondered why it was so difficult to find a game of pick-up soccer. As far as he could see, there were no spontaneous games going on in local parks. Anything he did find was super-organized, distant, and costly. His idea was to turn Atlanta’s train station parking lots (that were seriously underutilized) into soccer fields that were open for free-play and pick up games, accessible to the general public – specifically those accustomed to using public transportation.

The idea took off and gained funding, but now… the fields are all “professionally managed” by club soccer, and only open for scheduled practices and scheduled pick-up games.

If your event is not officially sanctioned by the club, you are charged $5/person for use.

THE PATH TO SUCCESS… and our path.

People make comments that America is decades behind other countries in development of it’s soccer structure and player development, but that would insinuate that we were at least on the right path. However, nothing could be further from reality.

The fact is that U.S. Soccer is going in a direction that has no similarities at all to Europe or South America and has nothing to do with developing a culture of soccer.

U.S. Soccer is fully behind the MLS circus that values a fan base similar to the NFL, and a player feeder program that emulates Major League BASEBALL, while currently hiring cheap labor from the Caribbean. The idea of developing American players who can compete with the world’s best has never been a concern, unless it is a by-product of making money.

Our country needs to develop it’s soccer culture through a “free play” initiative, that allows kids to play as much as they want – when they want – without adult interference. Only then can a soccer culture develop.. and from there, PLAYERS, who can compete with the best in the world.

However, those in charge of soccer in our country are business people who only consider how they can profit from the game.

We are on the wrong road to develop a long-lasting, meaningful soccer culture in the United States… and it dead-ends into darkness.

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