The Pros and Cons of Club Soccer That You Need to Know

Part 1: The 10 Pros of Club Soccer

Youth soccer is usually broken down into recreational soccer and competitive soccer.  The decision to take your child over to competitive soccer is a difficult one (see Should Your Child Play Competitive Soccer:  How to Know).  But, once you decide your child is ready for competitive soccer you may face another choice:  an independent competitive team or a club situation.  The top 10 pros of club soccer might convince you that a club is the right choice.

  1. Clubs Attract Players
  2. Clubs Have Licensed Coaches
  3. Clubs Offer More Playing Opportunities
  4. Clubs Make it Easier to Fill In for Absent Players
  5. Clubs Qualify for Higher Level Leagues
  6. Clubs Make the College Recruiting Process Easier
  7. Clubs Have More Resources
  8. Clubs Have Fun Spiritwear
  9. Clubs Offer “Community”
  10. Clubs Have Better Facilities

Soccer clubs are groups of teams playing under one banner.  The coaches are usually paid coaches and the teams are tiered into ability levels.  Typically, if you’re willing to pay to put your child in a club, the club will find a team for him or her.

Independent competitive teams are one-off teams at a particular age group that are put together by a coach (usually a parent of one of the players) that doesn’t want to operate within the confines of a club structure – either because of cost or a difference in philosophy.  Independent teams are very selective about their players and may not even exist in your child’s age group.  Often, it starts as a recreational team that has decided to go competitive while keeping the team together.

There are pros and cons to each situation in youth soccer.  Which one is right for your child will depend upon a number of factors. This article describes the top 10 pros of club soccer versus recreational soccer and independent competitive soccer. To see the top 10 cons of club soccer, read Part 2: The Top 10 Cons of Club Soccer.

Clubs Attract Players

Perhaps the biggest pro of club soccer is that clubs tend to attract a large number of more committed players.  When the player pool is large, it’s easier to put players with similar abilities together, which is the goal of club soccer.  This often results in higher level teams.  Even if your player is not at the highest level, he/she will likely be placed on a team that fits his/her skill level. Ultimately, a more homogenous team makes for a better development platform and an enjoyable overall experience.

On the other hand, recreational soccer tends to attract all levels of soccer players. Some players just want exercise, some are exploring various sports, and some are huge talents that don’t want what comes with playing club soccer.  

The goal of recreational soccer tends to be balancing the competition.  In other words, the league usually wants to avoid blowout games which often lead to hurt feelings or anger and, eventually, quitting the sport.  To accomplish this, recreational leagues often try to disburse the most talented players amongst the various teams.  So, the best players are often placed with some of the worst players to ensure that one team isn’t “too good”. This can be very frustrating for both the high level player who may feel held back and the low level player who struggles to keep up.  This also stunts the growth of the high level players because, to accommodate the lower level players, coaching can rarely rise above soccer basics.     

Finally, while clubs attract a certain type of player and recreational leagues attract a certain type of player, independent competitive teams have a hard time attracting ANY players.  While many clubs conduct extensive marketing campaigns and recreational soccer is often supported by the local Parks and Recreation department, independent teams are, as the name suggests, on their own.  Independent teams attract players through word of mouth and general reputation.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually enough to convince some players to give an independent team a shot.

Hard to Find Quality Players for Independent Teams

While I was coaching, I coached two essentially independent teams — my daughter’s team and my son’s team.  My daughter’s team was at the highest level while my son’s team was just a notch below.  In both instances I eventually had to move my teams to a club because I could not find enough players at the right level.  As you might expect, my daughter’s team moved earlier because my access to top players ran out at a younger age.  Since I didn’t need the absolute top players for my son’s team, I was able to maintain it as an independent team for longer.  But the player pool for it eventually dried up as well. 

Clubs Have Licensed Coaches

Another pro for club soccer is licensed coaches.  Clubs have to provide value for the money they charge.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to provide licensed coaches.  Parents always want their players to be coached by the best coaches.  The problem is that it’s hard to determine if a coach is good or not before committing to a team for a soccer year (See How to Pick the Right Club and Coach).  While licenses don’t guarantee competence, they at least give parents something objective on which to base their decisions.

Licensed Coaches Should be Preferred

Having been through several licensing courses myself, I can say that they do provide a good, basic foundation for teaching the beautiful game.  Whether a coach puts into practice what they learn in a licensing course is another question.  Nonetheless, you should prefer licensed coaches over non-licensed coaches.

Recreational leagues are full of volunteer coaches.  They can range from a fully licensed high level coach that you might find in a club context, to a well-meaning parent with no soccer experience that’s just looking to help out.  It’s really the luck of the draw.  As you may have read in When to Start Formal Soccer Training, my son got the latter in his first formal soccer experience which is why I became a coach.  A good coach can make or break a soccer experience for both the player and the parent.

Coaches of independent teams may or may not be licensed coaches.  Whether they’re licensed or not, typically independent coaches have more experience than recreational league coaches.  Independent teams don’t have the training curriculum or the dedicated administrative support that club or recreational teams do, so independent coaches have to do much of that work themselves.  Inexperienced coaches usually are not willing to take on those responsibilities.

Clubs Offer More Playing Opportunities

More potential playing opportunities is another pro of club soccer.  Most clubs have more than one team at each age level in a tiered structure.  Depending on league rules, players can often play or guest play on multiple teams within the club.  Sometimes that’s multiple teams at the same age level, but, if the player is skilled enough, there may be opportunities for the player to play up an age level (or two) within the club.  

One of the keys to good soccer development is making sure the developing player is playing and practicing at the correct level.  The multitude of opportunities that can be found at a club make finding the correct level much easier.

Recreational teams do not provide the playing opportunities that can be found at clubs.  It is sometimes possible for recreational players to guest play for higher level teams, but parents are often responsible for finding those teams and working out the logistics.  This can be pretty daunting if the parents aren’t familiar with the local soccer landscape and coaches.  Otherwise, playing opportunities for recreational teams are limited to recreational league games.

Independent teams are isolated as well. Again, it’s possible to guest play for other teams, but parents are left to find and manage those situations.        

Clubs Make it Easier to Fill In for Absent Players

Players are going to have conflicts.  There’s no way around it.  Players are also going to get injured.  If there are enough players on the roster, then those occurrences usually aren’t an issue.  That said, roster size is always a balance.  A coach wants enough players to avoid being short-handed in those situations, but not so many that sufficient playing time is a concern.

Soccer clubs make these problems easier to handle.  As I said, most clubs have more than one team at a particular age group, so it’s relatively easy to grab a guest player from another team as needed.  Even if a club only has one team at every age group, a player off of a younger team could play up and fill in, as needed.  Roster sizes can remain reasonable and there is no real threat of being short-handed.

Recreational team rosters are usually large enough that absences are not an issue.  The goal of recreational soccer is usually participation, so large team sizes are encouraged.  Larger teams allow for more participants.  Again, the downside to that is that playing time has to be divided into smaller chunks amongst more players.

Independent teams really struggle with absences.  There is no reserve player pool for independent teams to draw from.  Independent teams can pull players from other club teams for guest playing opportunities, but some clubs will not allow their players to guest play outside the club.  And, even if that is a possibility, the independent team coach has to be savvy enough to have the proper contacts to make that work.

Clubs Qualify for Higher Level Leagues

The highest level soccer leagues are not easy to get into (see ECNL vs. GA and MLS Next).  There’s usually an application and vetting process to ensure that the league maintains the proper level of competition and stays at a manageable size.  Soccer clubs are usually structured to make that process relatively pain-free.  A well-established club will understand how to develop a “resume” for a team to get them into a league that fits.  

Recreational teams play in recreational leagues that are often one level.  Even if the recreational league is tiered, the highest level of competition is lower than the lowest competitive league.  If you’re looking for high level soccer, recreational leagues are not the way to go.

Independent teams struggle to get in the higher level leagues.  The local competitive league may allow independent teams without a resume, but the higher level regional and national leagues will require proof that an independent team can compete at the desired level.  That can be difficult for an independent coach.  

There can also be some politics.  Higher level officials at state soccer organizations are often involved with local clubs.  Those local clubs have an advantage in the application process to higher level leagues.   

Finally, some leagues require a “club commitment”.  In order to get into the league, a club has to commit to having a team at every age group.  Independent teams cannot satisfy this requirement.

Clubs Make the College Recruiting Process Easier

If the goal of the player is to play at the college level, club soccer players have a distinct advantage.  First, many clubs have a position designated for assisting with college recruiting.  That person can focus on developing relationships with college coaches and assisting players with assembling highlight videos and communicating with college coaches.

Second, higher level leagues and showcases are essential exposure for aspiring college players.  As stated above, it is easier for clubs to gain admission to both higher level leagues and showcase tournaments.  The prospective college player will be in front of a lot more decision makers through club soccer.

Past a certain age, most recreational soccer players don’t intend to play college ball, but it should be noted that recreational leagues will have no exposure to college level recruiting.

Independent competitive teams will sometimes be admitted to showcase tournaments, but, as previously stated, will have a harder time getting into the higher level regional and national leagues.  Some recruiting will likely take place outside of showcases, but success often depends on the connections of the independent coach.  Independent coaches wear a lot of hats and sometimes find it difficult to devote the necessary time to helping their players get recruited.  

Soccer club girls ready for action

Clubs Have More Resources

Soccer clubs have a lot of useful resources for coaches and players.  One thing a lot of clubs have adopted is a coaching curriculum.  This allows the coaches of the various teams at one age level to coordinate and ensure that all players at an age level have been taught in a similar manner.  Practice planning is fairly simple and, in some cases, not even necessary depending on the level of detail in the curriculum.

Clubs also have access to practice equipment.  Pinnies, cones, pug goals, etc. can be passed down year to year.  If a coach needs certain equipment for a particular practice, it’s probably pretty easy to find.

Finally, some soccer clubs provide their players with individual resources.  One example of this is the Techne app which is great for individual skill development.  My daughters club gives access to Techne to all academy players. Individually, Techne can be pretty expensive, so it’s nice that this added benefit is provided by the club.

Recreational teams may have access to some league resources, but there are far fewer resources available as compared to a club.  Some recreational leagues attempt to install a curriculum, but since most leagues are dependent upon volunteer coaches, success with a curriculum is evasive.  Practice equipment may be available, but quality and quantity will likely be wanting.

Independent teams have it even harder than recreational teams.  There is no curriculum to follow, aside from any licensing training the coach may have received through US Soccer or any other training seminars.  Practice equipment is non-existent unless the independent coach is willing to buy it for his team’s use.  And, individual resources are dependent upon the coach’s willingness to find the resources and distribute them.  Again, that requires a lot more work and dedication than in a club situation. 

Clubs Have Fun Spiritwear

I admit that I love spiritwear.  It’s an easy way to support your child’s team and makes picking your outfit for the day a no-brainer.  Soccer clubs usually have great spiritwear.  Not only is it great marketing for a club, but it also serves as a fundraiser for all of that expensive practice equipment.

Recreational teams don’t usually have spiritwear available unless an ambitious and creative parent is involved.  Independent teams are similar.  Occasionally, an independent coach will develop some spiritwear to help pay for traveling tournaments and other team costs, but independent coaches have a lot of responsibilities and might not have the available resources for such an endeavor.  

Clubs Offer “Community”

Soccer clubs have great “community”.  As mentioned, clubs often have multiple teams at every age level.  The guest playing and cross age group playing promotes a synergy that permeates the club.  You can see this in tournament situations where various teams from the same club often root for each other throughout the weekend.

At a club, kids often feel like they’re part of something largerSoccer clubs generally have a reputation based on their philosophy, which encourages a sense of pride and belonging.  Players represent their clubs both on and off the field. There is a responsibility that comes with being a club soccer player.

Neither independent teams nor recreational situations have “community”, as the teams are typically one-off teams. 

Clubs Have Better Facilities

Soccer clubs generally have more financial resources, and as a result, excellent practice facilities.  Clubs can more easily afford the rent charged by the various venues suitable for soccer training.  Some clubs may even own their own practice fields.

Recreational teams usually have access to practice facilities, but the quality may vary.  Recreational leagues often partner with the local Parks and Recreation department to gain access to the local parkland.  Some recreational leagues will also contract with the local school districts for the use of their land for practice fields.  These partnerships keep the costs down, but having to depend on the Parks and Recreation department or the school district for proper upkeep can be problematic.  All too often, these fields are not well mowed and uneven to the point of being dangerous.  Technical training can be very difficult in these situations.

Independent teams have an even more difficult time with practice facilities.  While clubs gobble up the best facilities and recreational leagues provide options for the recreational teams, independent teams have to deal with the leftovers. Often, it’s churches or parks that the recreational league didn’t find suitable.  Again, it might not be the best training environment for technical work.   

Should Your Child Play Club Soccer?

The decision to go competitive is a very personal one.  Then, deciding between an independent competitive team or a club team adds to the complexity.

There are pros and cons to each situation, but the pros of club soccer may just win you over!

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