The 2026 World Cup Challenge – Creating Community and Legacy 05/02/2022
Each day, Soccer America Daily includes a selection of three stories that we found interesting at the bottom of the e-letter. Most are football stories, but occasionally a non-football story catches our interest.
Nicolas Dawidoff‘s story in the New Yorker about his hometown of Hamden, Connecticut was true in many respects.
“Which is lost as little leagues get smalleris the story of youth baseball and Dawidoff’s experience as a coach in the local little league and his own experience growing up in nearby New Haven.
“I grew up with a single mom,” he writes, “and I noticed all the dads in the stands watching their sons play. Mostly we kids didn’t know our neighborhood otherwise, kids from all over New Haven. The games opened up the city, showed how things and people were.”
Youth baseball used to thrive in Hamden with two full leagues. Now there are only four teams in a league. The city continues to grow — its population is up to 60,000 — but more and more kids are getting involved in sports, baseball, and other sports year-round.
Anyone who has spent any length of time in youth football will understand what Dawidoff writes:
“Travel sports seem to be out of our time, not only in their ambitious quest to gain an advantage in order to get ahead, but also in the way they create inequality and division within culture. Most people don’t have thousands of dollars to invest in a nine-year-old third baseman season after season. At the local level, most cities can’t compete with the lavish amenities of the travel companies that are often based in affluent white suburbs.”
Most little league players will never play in the majors. What’s different between Little League and Travel Ball, Dawidoff says, is how this revelation comes about:
“For generations of Americans, it was a national rite of passage, an early lesson in mortality: the revelation that eventually you will not be a major league. Typically there was a self-discovery, a quiet reassurance – in knowing you’d never stand out at a shortstop at Wrigley Field. However, when it comes to travelling, it might feel less like how it goes for almost all of us than a personal inadequacy. If, after all that preparation, you failed to win a Division I prom scholarship, it was your fault. The travel ball, for all its temptations, seems more likely to ruin a child’s enjoyment of baseball with the pressure it exerts than to make the child like baseball more.”
Dawidoff’s story of community and legacy was true in more ways than one. For two years I was the registrar of the Albany Little League in our hometown in the Bay Area. Which, as I soon learned when I succeeded the previous registrar, who was suffering from cancer, meant that I ran the league.
I got to know every family. I got to know all the parents who would only register their child if they were guaranteed to play with their best friend, I got to know childhood diseases I had never heard of, I got to know all the parents who said they couldn’t do it Pay their child’s registration fee – I would give them a stipend, no questions asked – and I got to know all the parents who bothered to thank me.
It was a nine-month job that began in October setting up the online registration system. I hosted sign-up nights at local schools, prepared player lists for coaches at auditions and before drafts, hosted the back-to-play night where kids met their teammates and coaches for the first time, ran the website, answered the E Received league mail, picked up mail and presented bills to the league treasurer, and helped coaches fill out their June All-Stars cards.
The latter is the secret of Little League’s success. All players must be in the designated area of the league, in our case the cities of Albany and Kensington, the northern half of Berkeley. (The maps we created showed the streets where our All-Stars lived and submitted them to the county for approval along with utility bills with matching addresses.)
Most of the children went to school together. And most parents were on their best behavior because the same parents they were sitting with or sitting across from in Little League saw them in the parking lot at school or at parents’ night at school. Our league wasn’t a “property league” – the players weren’t owned by the teams they drafted for the duration of their years in Little League – so the players got new teammates in each of their six seasons, from Single-A’s to Majors.
The Albany Little League was formed in 1956 and since I left it has grown to over 800 boys and girls thanks to the success of the Giants and A’s. It’s very much part of the fabric of the community.
In contrast, youth football has been disadvantaged in many ways. Sure, there are many community leagues, particularly those that emerged with the rise of football in the early 1970s, but the allure of the travel ball at a young age hit youth football hard, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, creating a divide between recreation and travel Ball.
Declining player participation figures for organized youth football, like this one reported raised all sorts of red flags in recent years. One of the themes in US soccer‘s recent presidential campaign was increasing attendance. Carlos Cordeiro called the general number of registrations of 3 million is not “disgraceful, but that is unacceptable”. I would argue that football doesn’t need another 3 million registered players, but it should ensure that the 3 million current players have the best possible experience so that they develop a love for the game, become lifelong fans and pass that interest on to their children .
Youth football big business would love another 3 million registered players to bring in more money and redistribute it to paid coaches and administrators and for more services and products. But these football companies — the giant leagues and organizations — aren’t the answer to the sport’s growth in terms of building the two things Dawidoff is talking about — community and legacy.
There is a World Cup coming to the United States in 2026 and by then there will be a lot of money pouring into football from sponsors. It may be a dream to think that the community values that Dawidoff experienced in New Haven or that I’ve seen in my years as a Little League registrar can be replicated, but supporting the World Cup can do much in more fundamental ways do to create community and legacy the source.
I have written previously on how local connections, connecting neighborhoods and cities with clubs, make football unique in the world. The same connections that birthed American sports for the first half of the last century were through schools and their facilities and programs, something football here never had or ignored.
One thing Cordeiro got right was pointing out that one of football’s most underutilized assets is a community’s most important asset – its schools. “We need to think, how can we use our schools?” Cordeiro said in his interview with Soccer America. And use them in the most basic way to allow kids to play alone and develop their own love of kicking a ball, away from the constraints of organized youth soccer. Before and after school, during breaks and in physical education.
Hundreds of mini pitches have been built and many more are being built. They’re a no-brainer, but they’re still, relatively speaking, big tickets. Less costly is something like futsal in schools that US youth soccer associations have been trying – installing futsal pitches in gyms and training physical education teachers to set up futsal programs.
By using schools, World Cup sponsors can spread the word that they do more than just help football.
I would put forward the idea that the World Cup should be used to identify and honor those who work in schools – staff of all kinds – for their work in classrooms and in football as coaches, administrators, even fans. A “Teacher of the Year” competition, you could say. Selected winners could win travel and tickets to World Cup matches. The process of nominating school staff would help football communities identify who can be valuable resources in promoting football in their schools.
If we accept that football’s growing connection to its community and fostering a child’s enjoyment of the game is fundamental, everything else we’re worried about will be much easier to resolve.
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash