How to choose a club soccer team

I had an interesting conversation the other day on this topic.  A question that often gets asked by parents or players is how to find the right team.  Or, is there a better team out there?  One worth leaving a current club for? 

When I was a player, I asked myself this question too.  I loved my club, but we weren’t exactly known as the area’s top talent.  At a game where my future college coach came to scout, we lost 11-0.   I was the sweeper (and to this day, I’m still mortified about it).  So why did I stick around?  Because the coach knew the game like no one else I’d played for.   He led us with positivity.  I knew I wouldn’t do well with someone who yelled a lot.  He was so well-respected in the soccer community that his phone call to that same D1 college coach sealed the deal for me to play there.  I didn’t have the state cup or regional trophies like others in my recruiting class, but I don’t regret a thing.  What if I played for a better team, but burnt myself out?  Or what if I got screamed at every game, enough to make me want to hang up my cleats early?    

So how does one pick a soccer club to play for?

It’s a decision made on a lot of factors, and it can be difficult to know where to start.   

Join the team known for sending players to division I colleges; but it’s also the one that costs the most and requires your son or daughter to quit all their other sports?  

Or the team that loses a ton of games, but has a coach that cares about each athlete’s individual development?  

Or the club that has a hot-headed, yelling coach, but also all of your son or daughter’s friends.  

Here’s a framework for making the best choice for your athlete.

The business of club soccer

Like anything, at the end of the day, this is a business.  The club owner’s business strategy dictates how the club operates.  It’s typically one of two methods:

  1. High volume of players

What that means:  Each team takes a ton of players, but the talent pool or quality of play may get watered down in the process.  More players means more revenue, but it also means more coaches, more field space needed (which becomes even more of an issue in the winter months in places like Cleveland, where indoor field time becomes as valuable as gold).  

2. Highly selective club

What that means:  The club has a reputation of excellence, which could keep it sustainable for the longterm, but they may not be generating as much money in the short-term.  Not as many coaches needed, possibly more attention is given to players, however these teams are harder to make, and playing time may be limited.  Players need to be 100% dedicated to a team like this, with goals of playing in college and beyond.  Costs may or may not be more expensive to offset the lower volume of players paying to be part of the club. 

Things parents should take into consideration:

Clubs may have different experiences for different age groups or programs (boys vs girls teams, MRL vs ECNL teams, etc). 

In a larger family, one sibling may love their club coach, teammates, culture, but another may not.  

This might not be the club’s fault.  For example, a team could lose players over the years to other sports, injuries, other interests.  To have enough numbers for games, that team could combine forces with a younger age group.  Occasionally when this happens, personalities or team cultures clash.   

Other scenarios:  two teams from the same club are coached differently.  Or, one athlete may respond well to their coach, and the other may not.  Some players thrive under positive reinforcement; others do best when they’re pushed by a no-nonsense coach.  

What to do?  Think about…

1. The end goal for the athletes in your family.  Is it practicality?  Cost?  Higher goals of playing in college/professionally?  Keep that goal central to your decision making.

2. What’s necessary and feasible?  Again, cost, practically (how many nights is your athlete able to devote to the club?  How far are you willing to drive for training?), or playing in college?  

**Sometimes the goal doesn’t align with what your family is able to do to reach it.   That’s just a reality sometimes, due to income, family situations, etc.  Doesn’t mean your athlete can’t achieve their dreams, it just means a different route is necessary (like extra time training on their own).  

Things happen. 

Unfortunately, soccer is a contact sport.  There’s a high risk of injuries, and some are worse than others, like concussions, ACL injuries, stress fractures, ankle sprains, etc.   As a PT, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parent say “I’ve invested too much money in my kid for him/her to miss time.”   The unfortunate reality is that sometimes there are setbacks along the journey to athletic excellence.  Paying for the best soccer training in the world can’t take the risk of that away. 

What to do? 

Be realistic- don’t get too high on the good days or too low on the bad days.

(Need help with this?  I’m happy to give perspective or hope that all may not be lost when it comes to an injury)

Where is your money going?

Club dues, uniforms, extra training sessions are all expected.  Note that there’s added costs of traveling:  hotels, meals, occasional last minute flights if a team qualifies for a major championship/tournament.  There’s also take-out dinners on the way home from a late practice, gas from driving an hour to the field, etc.  

Understand what’s in your budget, and what could be your budget for the long term.  The pandemic has shown us that some jobs, incomes, etc can suddenly not be as stable as we once thought. 

Things athletes should take into consideration:

  1. What is your ultimate goal?  When you join a club team, talk with your coach about reaching it.  You may need to do more skills training, you may need to get stronger, or you might need to learn more about your position on the field.  Club teams are for taking your playing to the next level – take advantage of the expert coaching that a club team provides.  
  1. You could play on the best team in the world, but if you don’t put effort into your training sessions, you’ll never be the best player in the world.  Make sure your goals align with your effort.  Just going through the motions, even with the best of coaches, doesn’t get you far in the long run.  
  1. Understand the costs of both time and money that your family is putting into your ability to play.  To drive you to training, they might be giving up a night of doing something that would be considered fun for them.  Maybe they’ve worked a very long day and now have to sit in a car for two hours instead of relaxing.  Maybe they rushed out of work just to get you to the field on time.  Or maybe they’ve taken on another job to pay for your spring tournaments.  Thank them.  Often.   

Parting thoughts…

On a recent Men in Blazers podcast, US Men’s National Team player Tyler Adams brilliantly summed up the sacrifice, but also the reality, that it takes to reach goals of playing at the highest level.  I’d recommend taking the time to listen to it HERE.