Do You Have an Extra $6,000 to Spend on Soccer? You Might Be Better if You Did.
May 17, 2023
Born into a soccer family, Chris Maldonado grew up enriched by the world of soccer. Throughout the seven years Chris has been playing club soccer, he has played with kids from all over Marin County, and during that time, he realized that his resources were limited compared with many of his peers.
When Chris was 13 he joined a club team called Marin FC.
Chris did not have access to private coaching, unlike many of his teammates, and if it was not for the scholarship he is currently on for Marin FC, he would not have been able to play club soccer. As a freshman, Chris never thought he would have the ability to attend college. His grades were not where they needed to be. His mind set changed when his club coach told him that he had the potential to play collegiate-level soccer. Immediately Chris’s attitude shifted and he became driven in school and made time to train three times a day.
“Playing in college was a way to get a cheaper education and get my expenses paid for,” said Chris.
His natural talent, dedication to improve, and support from his community is what got Chris this far in his soccer career as he is now committed to a Division I program at the University of San Francisco.
Marin FC is the highest-level soccer club in Marin County. They have teams starting from U8 all the way to U18/19. Each age group has two to three different level teams depending on the number of players that try out. The blue team is the most competitive level, followed by the red team, and then the steel team. The blue team is an Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) team that travels to tournaments outside of California, so playing at that level directly leads to more expenses. One season at Marin FC can cost up to $3,000, depending on what team you play on. This does not include the expenses for uniforms and travel.
Adam Leikin, a student-athlete at Tamalpais High School, has been playing soccer since he was just eight years old, and has been a part of a competitive team since the sixth grade. He worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity he had access to. He was able to attend all sorts of tournaments, and was regularly seen by college recruiters while playing on Marin FC. He received private coaching from local coaches in his area and was able to spend one on one time with them to perfect his skills. After years of coaching, tournaments, practices, blood, sweat, and tears for the sport, he found himself committed to a Division III team, Pomona-Pitzer, to continue his soccer career.
Both Chris and Adam committed to play the next four years at their desired college, yet they took two completely different pathways to get there. Each of these young athletes are driven and have the ability to play collegiate level soccer, yet how they reached their end goal of commitment was completely different. What really puts one athlete above another when it comes to the end, is it based completely on skill, or is the pay-to-play system valued over all?
With the expenses of club, many people who come from a lower socioeconomic status are not able to give their children all of the opportunities that other parents can give. Those who have the resources, have more opportunities, and more exposure to allow for their potential futures.
Marin County is an area in Northern California known for its wealth, with the average housing purchase cost of 1.6 million. Within this area you find families, students, and athletes of many different backgrounds. Marin is divided into three different high school districts, Tam, San Rafael, and Novato. The Tamalpais Union High School District, consists of Archie Williams High School, Tamalpais High School and Redwood High School. The San Rafael City High School District consists of both San Rafael High School and Terra Linda High School, while the Novato Unified School District consists of Novato High School and San Marin High School.
The county consisting of several different districts means that depending on where you live within Marin, this can dictate which schools you are able to attend. This excludes the private schools in Marin County. The Tam District contains the majority of the wealthier areas in Marin County such as Ross, Mill Valley and Tiburon. This leads to more funding within schools, and in turn, more funding to sports programs. This means the student athletes with more money, more experience, and more exposure are generally going to schools in the Tam District. How could this not lead to more success in their programs?
Playing club allows players to get exposed to college coaches through showcase tournaments and video footage. It is nearly impossible to commit to a school for soccer, if you have not been on a club team.
“In my opinion, I would almost certainly say that club is necessary to the commitment process,” said Jeffrey Mahaney, the Archie Williams girls varsity soccer coach.
Tamalpais boys varsity soccer coach and U18/19 Marin FC girls soccer coach Shane Kennedy said, “I think what club does is it puts you in an arena that has players, teams, tournaments, and coaches and puts them in the same organization.”
At schools like Tam, Redwood, and Archie, most if not all of the players on the team have some form of prior soccer experience whether that is club or recreational soccer. At SR, many of the players range from little experience in club soccer to none.
Jose De La Rosa, the Athletic Director at San Rafael High School, said, “Money has a bigger impact when they are younger.”
It is a question of whether or not their parents had the money to let them try out all these different sports and pick which one they wanted to play. A lot of the families at SR did not have the luxury to do that nor is it a part of their culture. “Culturally in the Hispanic community, not many parents expose their daughters to sports,” added Mr. De La Rosa. This automatically puts the girls soccer team at SRHS in a tough spot because they have a limited number of female student-athletes to select from.
Children’s sports in recent years have only continued to get more and more expensive. It’s no wonder that the critics of the system claim the pay-to-play system excludes children from lower-income families from playing soccer in the U.S. The average family will pay $1,472 per child that plays youth soccer, this being the cheaper option. When families start to look into “elite teams,” the cost can skyrocket up to $10,000. This excludes the amounts spent on travel, hotels, and gas, when it comes to finally attending tournaments and actually playing on those teams. The higher level, and more expensive, clubs are those who are seen by college and national recruiters. Kids who cannot afford the luxury of being on those teams, even if they have the skill, are commonly left behind.
Kleber Maldonado, Chris’s cousin, is also a player on Marin FC. He is currently a senior at TL and is committed to Sacramento State, a Division 1 soccer program. Kleber said that he never had private coaching outside of club, but his form of private coaching was training with Chris and their other cousin Elvin.
“I consider their opinions coaching advice because of how much knowledge they already have as players,” said Kleber. “I am happy with how much I trained and trained my body to become the player I am today.” Rather than using private coaching, they used each other to improve. Not everyone has the option of private coaching, but Kleber, Chris, and Elvin, “The Three Maldonados,” as they are known to many, were lucky to have one another to make up for that.
“The Three Maldonados” have grown up together since the day they were born. Both Elvin and Kleber were born in June and Chris came later on in September of 2005. They all went to the same day care and now attend Terra Linda High School. The three of them do mostly everything together. “My relationship with Elvin and Chris is like a brotherhood,” said Kleber. Over quarantine, Chris and Kleber would bike over to Elvin’s house and stay over the whole weekend.
Maya Greenholz, or “Greeny,” is a senior who attends Redwood High School. She has played club soccer since the fourth grade and is currently on Marin FC. Her speed and fast feet is what makes her stand out on the field. When it came to playing it in college, she wasn’t sure if that was the path she desired for her future or if she wanted to say goodbye to soccer after high school. She kept her options open and continued to communicate with college coaches as she was rising in her soccer career. She hit her junior year and realized she couldn’t imagine not being on a team post high school.
She committed to Colgate University as a Division I soccer player, and when asked about the most important aspects to her process, Greeny found that club soccer was her biggest impact. “I think I owe a lot of the success I had with my recruiting to the club and the team I played on, especially since it was in the ECNL.”
ECNL, or the Elite Clubs National League, is a top, league-based platform for both girls and boys. These tournaments are for high level and skilled players who are driven to play amongst other highly competitive players. This is an ideal environment for college coaches to recruit players for their school.
ECNL tournaments can range anywhere from California to Arizona to New Jersey, making travel expenses almost unaffordable for most people. But these tournaments are the ones that are most important to the commitment process for these young athletes. When committing to Colgate, the New Jersey tournament was the tournament that almost solidified the interest in Greeny. “I talked with them for a while to get to know them and the program better until they saw me play later at ECNL New Jersey, where they made it clear that they were interested in me as a player and we planned a visit for that summer,” she said.
She communicated with a lot of different colleges and attended many different ID camps to promote her athletic ability, and she spent many hours working on perfecting specific skills with private coaches. “I’ve had a bunch of different private coaches over the years. I used to do extra sessions in smaller groups with my coaches at Aftershocks and Tiburon, and I’ve also had trainers that aren’t associated with my clubs in any way where I usually focus on technical work and shooting.” With the ability to access private coaching, the drive to want to play in college, and access to ECNL tournaments, she was able to perform at a level that exceeded recruiters expectations.
Playing club soccer is not necessary to develop skills, however it is necessary to build networks. These club coaches know many different college coaches and are able to help you get in contact with them and even push them to come watch a game in person. Club players get way more exposure and opportunities to play in front of coaches.
“Rarely do you see a college coach come to watch a high school game,” said Jeff Mahaney, Archie Williams girls soccer coach.
How can players be exposed to coaches if they aren’t playing club soccer?
Starting at five years old, Stella Espinasse has played soccer her entire life and is also now a part of Marin FC’s team. She knew early on that she wanted to be a part of collegiate-level soccer and has a dream of going pro. She attended many different ID camps, estimated at around ten to fifteen. What got her noticed though, was attending ECNL tournaments. Being on a team that commonly attends ECNL tournaments, her coaches were familiar and were able to obtain personal relationships with a lot of the recruiters attending these tournaments. “Marin FC has relationships with colleges, so it is easier, because if you want to play in college you need to have relationships with college coaches or know someone who does,” said Stella. She is now committed and continuing her soccer career at Middlebury College, a Division III program.
After speaking with many committed players, it is obvious that the most important aspect to committing at the collegiate level is being a part of the ECNL tournaments. These tournaments are expensive, but they are rewarding to those who want to take that next step in their athletic career. Without the money to pay for these tournaments, your chances of committing to college are not impossible, but rather slim in comparison.
An article in the The Washington Post, posted on December 12, 2022, focuses on a multi-athlete player named Kamiya Vasquez and the struggles her family faced while wanting to be able to give their children the same chances at collegiate-level success as many of the kids in her area. It discusses at length the potential costs of youth sports and the thousands of dollars in just registration fees that travel leagues can run. Household income is a primary driver in early participation of sports, and only 24 percent of kids from low-income families have the opportunity to play, according to the Aspen Institute. Parents in the wealthiest households spent about four times more on their child’s sport than the lowest-income families.
The average child in today’s athletic world spends less than three years playing a sport, quitting by the age of eleven. To keep their children playing, parents begin opening their checkbook, spending an average of $883 dollars on a child’s primary sport per season. Children are having different sports experiences based on money, and rising participation costs have created an economic divide that has limited opportunities for kids from impoverished and marginalized families.
I, Lila Nitta, one of the authors of this story, have grown up in the club soccer system in Marin County and I can personally say it is a harshly competitive environment. I started playing for Marin FC in 5th grade and every year since then, I have been placed on the second-level team, otherwise known as the red team. The red teams for Marin FC get little exposure to college coaches. During my time playing on the red team, I only attended one showcase tournament where there were few coaches who watched our games. Each year I worked hard to try and make the ECNL team, but every year that goal of mine seemed to get further and further away. Once junior year hit and I did not make the ECNL team, my dream of playing in college faded away.
Finally, as a senior in high school, having already applied to colleges without soccer in mind, I got pulled up to the ECNL team. I was beyond happy to see that my dedication to soccer had paid off, but it was disappointing that it had to be my last year playing club when I finally became a player on the high-level team.
The ECNL teams at Marin FC are highly competitive and every player is extremely committed. My teammates on the team pushed me to improve throughout the fall season, and I saw my skills develop more than I ever had. I had the opportunity to attend a huge ECNL showcase tournament in Arizona, where many, many college coaches came to watch. At each game there were 10 or more coaches sitting on the sidelines, scouting out players. It was an incredible experience and one that I would have never had if I did not play club soccer.
Club sports can completely change where a student athlete goes in their athletic career and it is unfortunate it’s not accessible to everyone. On the ECNL team, I am the only player from the San Rafael City School District. Every other player attends Tam, Redwood, Archie Williams or a private school like Marin Academy or Marin Catholic. The districts with more wealth are the districts with more players on highly competitive teams. This almost automatically makes their high school teams more advanced.
In the 2022-2023 high school soccer season, the top four teams for the girls varsity MCALS were Redwood, Branson, Tam and Archie. The Redwood team went 15-3-5, while the SR team went 2-17-2. It is clear that a contributing factor to Redwoods success is the amount of experienced players they have on their team. This year, the SR girls varsity team only had three players from ECNL teams while almost every starting player for Redwood plays on an ECNL team.
There are rare cases, like Terra Linda’s success story from this year’s season, where a team who came from San Rafael’s school district was able to win it all. This season the boy’s Terra Linda team came up first in league, or MCALs, won our North Coast Section Title, and won California’s Interscholastic Federation, or state, for the Division III league. They had endless successes for the 2022-2023 season with a record of 18-5-2. Chris Maldonado and his two cousins, Kleber and Elvin, were all on Terra Linda’s team this season. In fact, the entire starting lineup for this season’s team are club players. These three are all on the same scholarship for Marin FC that allows them to play club soccer. Imagine if every kid who wanted to play soccer could be allowed this opportunity of playing at an affordable price, who knows what could be the possible successes of the lower income districts?
Not everyone is guaranteed the athletic ability that Chris, Kleber and Elvin have, even with the help from club coaching, and extra work put in. But there are many kids who could be the world’s next soccer star who never even received the chance due to something ludicrous, like registration fees.
The opportunity to play club soccer clearly is not accessible for everyone, but there have been small steps made to improve this issue. Most club teams offer scholarships to allow underprivileged families to give the same opportunities to their children as kids whose families are at a higher socioeconomic status. Even with these scholarships, these families still need to pay for travel expenses, equipment, and hotel rooms. When looking into certain colleges and wanting to attend camps, this is yet another expense to pay for. If they do ever reach the point where they are being looked at by college coaches or are invited to a visit, unless they are going Division I, their expenses for travel and stay at those colleges are not paid for.
Maybe the expenses to be on these teams are covered, but with all of the other expenses that come with playing club soccer, the expenses are still not reasonable for low income families. Not only does this discourage the athlete from trying, it restricts them from reaching what could be their lifetime goal. If we could provide more scholarships, or simply just make expenses less unreasonably costly there would be more access, opportunities, and encouragement for kids with lower socioeconomic backgrounds to have success and believe in their athletic future.