By Donovan Alexis and Lamia Choudhury
SAYVILLE, NY–The ball, struck with venom, didn’t faze young Niko Ferrante as it whipped towards his goal. The 14-year-old goalkeeper plucked the ball calmly and safely from the air before launching it back to commence his team’s counter attack. His mother, Necole Ferrante, watched from the sideline while he remained focused on keeping his net unbreached. She cheered out his name, after her son saved his team from danger.
“Without a doubt it’s a possibility that that’s in his head, to go as far as he can to be the best he can be,” Niko’s mother said.
On Nov. 1, Skills Unlimited Soccer Academy (SUSA), a soccer academy based in Hauppauge, announced their new affiliation with Major League Soccer (MLS) club New York City Football Club (NYCFC). For many young aspiring footballers like Niko, it is a new pathway to the professional game.
“He played on a local travel team and wanted to come where he knew nobody and basically make it knowing he didn’t know anybody, Niko’s mother said.
A professional environment is imperative to play at a higher level and develop at the right pace and right level, said Eddie Hackett, technical director for SUSA boys.
“NYCFC logistically makes sense for us as a club in the fact that they’re in Queens so our players, if they are good enough to that level they could be [identified] by the NYCFC academy staff,” Hackett said. “We speak to them on a regular basis to see whether we can invite kids to give them the opportunity.”
On Long Island, along with the majority of the United States uses a pay-for-play system where mostly children who come from middle to high class families are able participate in top soccer programs as long as they can continue to pay for the fees and gear.
SUSA offers scholarships on a need basis rather than turning players away. They evaluate what the family situation is and comb through the necessary paperwork.
But the pay-to-play model eliminates sixty percent of the eligible pool of players. “When you eliminate over half of the pool from which you can draw people to play and develop excellence, you’re going to have a problem,” Jay Coakley PhD, author of Sport in Society, said.
Look no further than the United States’ recent failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup to see that there is a gap in success when compared to the rest of the top nations excelling in soccer. When looking at the quality of the most elite league in the U.S., Major League Soccer (MLS), it pales in comparison to the likes of the leagues in England, Germany, Spain, and even Latin America.
The regions that are light years ahead of the United States in terms of player development have youth academy systems in place that educate far beyond soccer, Coakley said.
“The academy system, you can’t just transplant it into American culture. It’s related to the way we define family and the traditions of parents being the mentors, agents and advocates for their child,” Coakley said. “Unless those academies in the U.S. develop a really efficient recruiting system that basically draws from the entire pool of kids who could develop soccer skills, it’s not going to work either.”
Coakley explained that soccer academies in Europe are more like boarding schools so the players are able to develop a camaraderie that is just not possible on American teams where the players only see each other after school for a few hours. He also said many of the children who are accepted are very impoverished and the academies are funded directly through football clubs so money is not an issue in cultivating talent.
“We’re competing against countries that have a 150 year tradition, Coakley said. “So give us another 100 years to change the culture, and the structure around soccer, and soccer opportunities, and the status around soccer participation–and we’ll beat anyone in the world.”
SUSA’s new affiliation with NYCFC is the first step toward changing the culture. Kids are committing to soccer at a younger age and therefore giving it their full effort, Hackett said.
“It tremendously benefits [kids on Long Island],” Joe Ditillo, parent of two SUSA players said. “NYCFC is a great organization in New York and [SUSA] is a great academy. Basically any academy affiliated with a professional team is a great thing.”