St. Louis MLS Team Aims To Make Soccer More Equitable With Youth Academy

There is more than one chance of wearing the St. Louis City SC crest. It is an attempt to join a program with a pipeline to professional football.

More than 250 teenagers are crowding for a spot on the list of the new MLS youth football academy in St. Louis this spring. The pandemic has postponed St. Louis City SC’s debut season until 2023, which means the organization has additional time to develop its youth academy model.

This model challenges the pay-to-play system that has long dominated competitive youth football at both local and national levels. The club is free to any 15 or 16 year old boy talented enough to make the roster. It is one of the few free premier youth football clubs in the St. Louis area. Parents often spend thousands of dollars a year keeping their children on elite teams, making wealth key to the development of many young prospects.

“We now have the opportunity to build something from scratch to get the foundation right. This is our key because it can actually change people’s lives,” said Lutz Pfannenstiel, St. Louis City SC’s sports director.

16-year-old Axton Anom is one of the lively hopefuls.

“I like the sport a lot, so I try to play at a higher level,” Anom said recently during a test with the club at Plummer Family Park in Edwardsville. He started playing soccer at the age of 4 and has competed in both Italy and the United States when he and his family followed his father’s duties at various air bases.

Axton’s father, Benjamin, watched from the parking lot and said he hoped his son would make the cut. Benjamin Anom said youth football is very different here than where he played pickup games in Ghana.

“Your parents didn’t have to have a specific income to register for the soccer game,” said Benjamin Anom. “In the USA you can tell that it is much better organized. But with such an organization comes a price. “

Club football fees are not a financial burden on him and his wife, but he said he would support Axton’s dream expense in other ways. “The casualties are just enormous,” said Benjamin Anom. “It’s just a big deal [and costs] Time, money, risk, travel. “

St. Louis City SC Youth Academy hopefuls huddle to listen to coaches after a scrimmaging session at Plummer Family Park in Edwardsville on April 17, 2021.

St. Louis City SC

St. Louis City SC Youth Academy hopefuls huddle to listen to coaches after a scrimmaging session at Plummer Family Park in Edwardsville on April 17th.

Numerous families like the Anoms make sacrifices for their children to play competitive football in the area. And financial support in youth club football is rare.

Jeff Muhr trains over 500 Missouri children in an Olympic training program as the director of coaching and player development for the Missouri Youth Soccer Association. Only a small proportion of these athletes, around 20, have a full or partial scholarship.

Too often, Muhr said, children are excluded from play just because of their parents’ income.

“That should never happen in our community, in our country where we have so many resources,” said Muhr. “Unfortunately, youth football and youth sports in general have a big business element.”

Most of the top leagues have fees to maintain fields and pay for equipment, travel, and coaches. But not all. Almost every MLS team offers a competitive, free youth academy.

Soon, nearly a third of MLS players could be tracked from these academies, according to Taylor Twellman, ESPN football analyst. He knows the local pay-to-play system well. Twellman is a native of St. Louis and a former MLS and US national team player.

St. Louis is a shattered region that is severely disparate from income and often determines who has access to top football programs, Twellman said.

“You have to develop the inner city. You have to develop the underdeveloped parts of St. Louis for this thing to really work, for this thing to really thrive, ”he said.

St. Louisans like to think of the region as “America’s first football capital,” but existing inequalities within the pay-to-play model have limited the region’s ability to develop players. And the problem isn’t unique to St. Louis. It’s a national issue that Twellman says contributed to the underperformance of the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team (which failed to qualify in the last three Olympics) and the Men’s World Cup team (which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup) has Russia).

“Sometime [soccer] in the US has to stop becoming a top sport, ”Twellman said in a 2017 interview on ESPN. “It has to be a popular sport. It has to be an inner-city sport. “

St. Louis City SC’s Pfannenstiel said it will take five to seven years to develop fairer access to sport in the area.

“We have to be patient,” said Pfannenstiel. “And I think we have a great group of owners who are patient with this and very passionate about creating young talent here, local talent.”

From left: Elvir Kafedzic, Lutz Pfannenstiel and Tim Twellman talk about possible exercises that can be carried out during the open experiment in April.  04/17/2021

St. Louis City SC

Elvir Kafedzic (left) and Lutz Pfannenstiel (center) talk about exercises to be carried out during an open experiment in April. Kafedzic and Taylor Twellman act as coaching advisors and are involved in the local football scene.

The St. Louis City SC academy model will eventually be expanded to include a total of four youth teams and an U21 development team.

The organization also plans to offer free community training to children under the age of 13, create more green spaces in the neighborhood, and develop trainer training programs at high schools and other youth clubs.

Back on the field in Edwardsville, Pfannenstiel’s eyes flicker between gray T-shirts and neon yellow pennies during the tryout in mid-April. The 15- and 16-year-old boys sprint across the green lawn and play that they hope will impress the coaches. Pfannenstiel said this is the best age to start the academy’s first club teams as the average age of a player drafted by MLS is around 17.

In total, almost 300 boys try out for the local academy teams. This group will be reduced to 46 players who will compete in the MLS Next League, which includes 113 elite clubs and MLS academies in the US and Canada. Pfannenstiel hopes he can sign at least one of these local players for the St. Louis City SC pro squad in time for the first game in two years.

“It will be a strong message for the future of the club if we show immediately with our first team, who play MLS, that we already have some local boys from our academy,” said Pfannenstiel.

The Edwardsville trials were the first of three open trials. The last one is this weekend at Cardinal Ritter High School in St. Louis. The youth teams took to the field this August.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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