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American Youth Soccer

youth playing soccer

(Photo: BananaStock/PictureQuest)
You name the U.S. National Team player, and they've probably taken similar paths to the top. They started in youth soccer.

Hall of Famer Paul Caligiuri, who scored the goal that boosted the U.S. into its first World Cup in 40 years in 1989, did. So did U.S. National Team star and Real Salt Lake defender Eddie Pope. And so did U.S. Women's National Team striker Abby Wambach, who scored the winning goal in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal match.

They began playing for the fun of it as youngsters, usually at 4 or 5 years old, and worked their way up the ladder.

The Big Little Leagues

Youth soccer has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 21 years. In 1984, the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA) broke the one-million-participant barrier for the first time. Today, more than 3 million children and youth belong to the organization.

And that doesn't include two other organizations. American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) boasts more than 650,000 members, and Soccer Association for Youth (SAY) has another 80,000.

The USYSA has four regions (East, Midwest, South, and West), 55 state associations (some states have so many members that they have to be split into two associations), and hundreds of leagues and thousands of clubs.

The Pecking Order

Virtually every soccer player begins at the recreation level. Age groups for boys and girls usually run from 4 to 14, although some leagues have programs for players up to 16. These players play to learn the game and for the fun of it. While many soccer clubs sponsor recreational or in-house programs, churches, YMCAs, police athletic leagues, and public schools also operate them. The teams don't require much traveling out of town and usually are played on neighborhood school fields.

As a child gets older, he or she may want to move on to the next level. Travel teams, which usually are made up of players from the same town, community, or geographical area, start at the age of 10 and run through under-19 (or U-19). They have been known to travel up to 50 miles for games.

The next level is for the talented and dedicated player. These premiere teams are made up of the best players from a particular age group. They should not be confused with league select or state Olympic Development Program teams because they come from various leagues. Some premiere teams play games in their home league on Saturday and perform in the premiere division on Sunday. Many states operate such leagues.

If a player is truly gifted, he or she might earn a position on the state ODP team (no relation to the Olympic team), one of the four regional teams or perhaps one of the youth national teams that range between U-14 through U-18.

How far up the ladder do you want to go?