Playing soccer in a well-organized amateur system is difficult in the United States. People who want to play in a regular league, have to pay a lot of money. And often they do not even have a place to practice.
Halftime: time for Facebook Live. Two players call a friend and loudly discuss in Spanish. Two of their teammates are welcomed off the field by their little daughters who spent the past 45 minutes sitting on the ground and painting pictures while their mothers ran, straddled, and yelled on the field.
With sixteen fields side by side, the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, located in southeast Memphis, is the city’s home of amateur soccer. It has stands for each field, made of metal and only four rows high.
This Tuesday evening, the ‘Hearts of Memphis FC’ face ‘Those Guys’. The floodlights are on; the playing level is no better than mediocre. Twenty minutes have passed when ‘Those Guys’ midfielder Nicholas Berra takes a free kick. He bypasses the wall and scores the equalizer: 1-1! Forty-five-year-old ‘Hearts’ goalie Curt Rogers complains to his teammates about them not having set a good wall.
Besides directing walls against free kicks, Rogers organizes the whole league. He is president of the Greater Memphis Soccer Association (GMSA).
“I am kind of coaching 65 teams, in total more than 1,000 soccer players,” he said.
There are five men’s and two coed divisions, playing both a spring and a fall season. Between the leagues, they can be relegated and promoted. Besides that, men over 35 years can compete seven on seven in the so called ‘Legends’ Division’.
In Memphis, the GMSA is more or less the only possibility to play in a well-organized league system, but it is expensive. For a 10-game-season, each player is charged about 130 dollars.
“The vast majority goes on the field renting,” Rogers said.
The rest of the money goes toward GMSA, US Adult Soccer Association (USASA), and referees, who cost 80 dollars per game for each team.
Across the city border, the situation to soccer players is similar. Only about 5,000 playing adults are registered in Tennessee. After high school, many teenagers and young adults stop playing.
“It can be hard to find a year-round league after college,” said Jonathan Duncan, who has been responsible for the intramurals at the University of Memphis since 1999. “If you find one, it is going to be quite expensive. Bigger cities rather have a league system.”
He estimates that 60 to 70 percent of kids playing soccer drop out before graduating from high school. They lack opportunities to play in a cheap, well-organized and regular league. School teams mostly pay attention to their best players. Weaker athletes might miss the chance to compete in lower level teams.
In the wide variety of sports Duncan and his team offer to students, soccer is the most increasing one, he said. So it seems some young adults in Memphis desire organized competitions, but there is still less progress in work to change things.
“People in the US are accustomed to it,” Duncan said. “They don’t know it any other way.”
“Anywhere else in the world it is very different to the US,” said also Hans Hobson, Executive Director of the Tennessee State Soccer Association (TSSA). “Soccer still is such a new sport here. Great athletes have to choose between football and soccer. Then they are offered good college scholarships – mostly for football. So they stop playing soccer.”
It is a decision for money as stipends help many athletes with financing their studies. And whoever continues to play after high school can rarely compete on the field as the college season runs only from August to November.
“The collegiate system is not how it is supposed to be,” Hobson said. “A yearlong league would be better.”
For people who don’t study he sees better opportunities.
“Recreational leagues are relatively cost effective,” he stated, “because coaches are not paid there.”
But the 130-dollars fee does neither include referees nor being coached. Back at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, nobody is holding a tactical halftime speech. Few moments before the second half starts, the team meets in a circle and fools around.
Looking for a cheaper alternative in Memphis, any church league will certainly come across. The Christian communities have undertaken the tasks clubs do elsewhere. About 30 teams compete in various groups of age in the East Shelby Church Recreation Association.
“In Memphis, church recreational sports are very big business,” said Stanley Walls, Assistant Professor for Health and Sport Sciences at the University of Memphis. “But they rarely have separate adult divisions for strong and weak teams.”
Two of the big communities organizing those competitions are the Bellevue Baptists and Hope Church. Scott McClain works for the latter. They solely compose teams of kids aged between four and 13 years.
“There is very, very little interest in adult soccer,” he said. “Additionally, many churches do not have light facilities and enough land for that.”
The price per kids’ spring or fall season varies between 60 and 100 dollars for 14 games – depending on the team’s uniform. Hope Church does not reserve its league to Christians only.
“Of course Atheists and Muslims may play with us, too.”
Church communities act like clubs in Europe, with regular practice times and games. However, McClain specifies, every session begins with a common prayer.
While across the Atlantic things work another way, US-Americans seem to be satisfied with the status quo. Neither Hobson nor McClain nor Rogers said they would miss a nationwide network of divisions and amateur clubs having their own fields.
“It’s a weird system here,” said Duncan Riddle, Executive Director of USASA.
With 54 state associations – some bigger states have two associations – and 250,000 registered players, USASA considers itself the soccer federation for amateurs. According to Riddle, only three to five percent of its members play “highly competitive”; the others are interested in recreational soccer. Everyone pays 15 dollars a year to the USASA, including insurance.
Riddle said he would love to integrate regional churches to a higher degree into the USASA, “but the size of the country is a huge challenge.”
In his opinion, the biggest problem for establishing a nationwide amateur league system simply is the weather. While it is possible to play yearlong in states like California or Florida, it is hard to do so in the northeast where it can be freezing several months.
Additionally, he wants to cooperate more with the state associations and their local divisions. But it is difficult to implement another system in the federally developed US that is culturally extremely diverse – also in soccer.
“They see no value for them,” he complained. “Lower leagues often try to make profit.”
However, the subordinate organizations claim it was the other way around.
“The federation is full of money – more than they need,” Hobson from TSSA said.
“GMSA is not profit-oriented,” Rogers also countered. “Whatever money we have, we try to bring it back in the league.”
Indeed, he said they distribute 500 dollars to each of the seven teams overall winning a division. Only the over-35 league receives no prize money. Rogers himself said he got a “small stipend per season but it is essentially a volunteer position”.
Meanwhile, second half at Mike Rose Soccer Complex begins. Rogers’ team leads 2-1. Until now it has been a tight game. He sees the GMSA leagues at a quite competitive level.
“It is higher than at the churches. Their soccer is more recreational.”
Teams that are new to GMSA do not have to start in the lowest division. They can estimate their level on their own. For new players, a message board on the website enables them to find a team that fits. These are good preconditions for a working league system, but regular practice is impossible as it is not allowed at Mike Rose Soccer Complex. The Shelby County government owns it while a private operator makes good money with renting fields out – only for games though.
Nevertheless, Curt Rogers calls it the “best decision” for GMSA to play at Mike Rose and no longer on one of the city places.
“You even do not have to worry about light or broken glass,” he said standing in the mud of his six-yard box after the game ended 5-1. “This is a beautiful place. I would have loved to play here as a kid.”
By Philipp Saul and Paul Bartmuß