A Brief Tour of Oregon Youth Soccer

Recently, contributor C. I. DeMann wrote a post called "If I Owned the Team: Youth Soccer", in which he discusses some possibilities for the Timbers to improve the local youth soccer scene. Some of them are good ideas, and I don't want THIS fanpost to be interpreted as criticism of that article... but the Timbers (and Thorns) are already heavily involved in the youth soccer scene--and not everyone in the youth soccer community is happy about it.

To improve on the discussion of this topic, I am writing this fanpost to describe the current state of youth soccer in Oregon (and Southwest Washington, which is part of the Timbers "territory" for Homegrown Player purposes). My role in this is as a parent; I have several kids involved with competitive youth soccer at a well-known local club. I won't say which club here (though if you read through my comment history, I'm sure you can figure it out). I played recreational soccer in Oregon as a child, back when the NASL Timbers were in town. I'm not a coach or a club official, though have previously served as a team manager, and in that role was exposed to some OYSA (an acronym I'll explain later) policies and procedures.

I must warn you: the politics of youth soccer--not just in Oregon, but everywhere--can be nasty and vicious. I have my opinions on a lot of issues, which you can find. You may disagree with some of them, perhaps vehemently. I will try to be objective in this, I might not always succeed. But I suspect that there are many Timbers fans out there who don't have children who play organized soccer in Oregon, and may have no idea what the youth soccer scene looks like.

This article is limited to "club" soccer (as opposed to scholastic soccer and unorganized soccer), and only covers the outdoor game (not futsal or indoor) at youth levels.

The national organizing bodies

The American soccer scene is composed of zillions of entities and associations, all governing (or trying to) various aspects of the game. At the top of the heap is the national governing body, US Soccer, which is chartered by FIFA with essentially running the game in the United States. Prior to last year, US Soccer ran two leagues for advanced youth players, the Development Academy (for boys) and the Girls Development Academy, but a whole bunch of stuff (including the resignation of former US Soccer president Carlos Cordiero over some offensive remarks in a legal filing in the USWNT equal pay lawsuit, and the Covid-19 pandemic) caused US Soccer to abruptly shut down both last spring. Nowadays, the main direct involvement of US Soccer in youth soccer is operation of the youth national teams, and the various ID camps used to scout and identify talented players who might qualify.

Under US Soccer are numerous other organizations. There are three prominent organizations that govern youth soccer in this country (and a few smaller ones that won't be discussed further); they are the US Youth Soccer Association (USYSA), US Club Soccer, and American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO). AYSO has no presence in Oregon and won't be discussed further, other than to note that they focus mainly on "rec" soccer. USYSA, and its Oregon affiliate, the Oregon Youth Soccer Association (OYSA), are the governing body for the bulk of Oregon youth teams and clubs. US Club Soccer has a different governing model, and is not divided into state organizations; instead they operate several leagues (many of which cross state lines) directly. USYSA also charters something called the Girls Academy League (GA) which was formed out of the ashes of the GDA. There are two US Club affiliated leagues operating in Oregon: the Elite Clubs National League is a premier-level girls' league which has three member clubs in Oregon: The Portland Thorns Academy, and two local youth clubs. The Oregon Premier League includes several smaller clubs that either have chosen not to affiliate with, or been denied entry into, OYSA.

Finally, Major League Soccer, after the collapse of the DA, formed MLS Next, which includes all MLS youth academies (including the Timbers Academy) and several independent clubs around the country, though none in Oregon. (Boys' teams only).

It should be noted that USYSA and US Club, do not get along with each other. The latter organization was formed by a handful of elite-level coaches that felt, at the time, that USYSA was selling the elite-level player short, and that a separate organization, intended for grooming those players who had potential to play collegiately, professionally, or internationally, was needed. While USYSA supports all levels of soccer, they don't accept at all the premise that someone else, other than them, should be in charge of elite development. So the two organizations have been essentially at war with each other for years. A lot of the nastiness that goes on at the state level is likely driven by some of this, as both organizations would like nothing more than to "corner the market" on elite-level players and essentially drive their rival out of that market segment.

The "tiers" of youth soccer

The following sorting is mostly informal, though is generally reflected in club/team placements within leagues.

At the base of the pyramid is recreational soccer, or "rec". Most kids who play youth soccer play at this level. It's inexpensive, it's low-pressure, it's fun. Rec teams and leagues are generally run and staffed by volunteers--coaches, referees, and office personnel. Rec is also distinguished by its lack of tryouts--anyone can get on a team, regardless of ability, and is guaranteed playing time. The quality of play isn't great, obviously--it involves many kids who love the game but lack the athletic ability or talent to succeed at more advanced levels of play--but it is the foundation of the whole enterprise. It's also relatively free of drama and chaos, and everyone involved is there for the love of the game, and the egos and politics found in competitive soccer simply aren't found here. OYSA does not operate recreational leagues directly, but instead sanctions numerous organizations around the state that do. Two of the bigger ones in the Portland metro area are the Portland Youth Soccer Association (PYSA) and the Tualatin Hills Junior Soccer League (THJSL) in Washington County. There are many others.

Adjacent, somewhat, are various unaffiliated leagues that aren't registered with OYSA or any other US Soccer affiliate organization. There are many low-cost leagues serving the Latino community in this category. I'm not familiar enough with these to comment any further (I'm not Latino and neither are my wife and kids), but I wanted to note that these exist.

There's also TOPSoccer, which provides opportunities for players with disabilities. I won't discuss it any further either.

Finally, there's the wild and wacky world of competitive ("classic") youth soccer. OYSA runs leagues for competitive teams and clubs, and OYSA roughly breaks things down into two categories: Premier, and Non-Premier. Non-premier teams are generally better than rec, are usually coached by professional coaches (though generally not by "big name"s), has higher expectations of player and family commitment and require tryouts to get on (and players can be cut, though that's rare at this level, other than for disciplinary reasons). Generally this level of soccer is also relatively drama free and non-controversial. OYSA operates two season-end tournaments for non-premier teams: the President's Cup (for so-called "Division 1" teams) and the Founder's Cup (for "Division 2" teams, with recreational teams also encouraged to participate). Non-premier teams generally cost between $1k-$2k/year for dues and mandatory expenses (mainly uniforms). Since this level seldom involves travel, the cost generally doesn't go much beyond that.

And then there's premier soccer, which is where all the drama is. Outside professional academies, the various premier-level leagues, plural, is where you will find the top youth players. Teams at this level compete for the State Cup, which is essentially the state championship of youth club soccer. Winners of the various State Cups (and a few other teams) advance to USYSA Regionals (there are four geographic regions), and the regional winners advance to the national finals. Occasionally an Oregon team will make it all the way, though in most season no Oregon teams make it out of regionals. (California is in the same region).

And drama abounds. Many players, especially in the middle school ages, think that they are competing for a chance to make the "big time". And so do many of their parents, some of whom can be quite zealous about promoting their children's youth soccer careers. (And "career" is frequently the right word to use here). Most of them are fighting over nothing, and Oregon seems to produce one MLS-caliber player every couple of years, but some sidelines are chock full of tiger moms and dads who think that their little footballer is Messi or Mia. And some of these parents are wealthy, and will spend all sorts of money on travel tournaments, personal trainers, high-end soccer camps overseas, and other things like that to whip Junior into shape. I could tell you some stories.... I won't, mainly to protect the guilty, but there are some ridiculous parents out there.

And where there are wealthy parents spending money--there are plenty of people lining up to take it off their hands.

You'll note I said "leagues", here. On the girls side, there are not one but two "travel leagues" operating in the state, ECNL and GA. By "travel league", I refer to leagues where the participating teams are sufficiently spread out, that overnight travel (or even air travel) is a regular occurrence. (OYSA leagues and tournaments do occasionally involve drives to Medford, but most games on the schedule will be within an hour of home). Proponents of such claim a better playing experience and tougher competition, as one will be stacked up against top teams in Seattle or even San Francisco, rather than other clubs in the neighborhood. Critics think that such claims are highly overstated and mainly for recruiting purposes, and the most important aspects of a young players' development are what happens in practice and in free play, not in travelling to another city to likely get one's butt kicked. Some of the inter-club (and inter-league) recruiting and infighting can be vicious. When people say that American youth soccer is "fragmented", it's this level of the pyramid that they talk about.

The boys side is a bit more straightforward. There are several boys' travel leagues in the country, including BECNL (which has a presence in Washington but not Oregon), but the MLS academy system (which for most MLS clubs, is free) generally is the destination for top boys' players. When the DA was in operation, Oregon boys youth soccer was fragmented, but currently all the top boys' teams play for OYSA leagues. Though rumors abound that BECNL might one day show up in Oregon as well, it hasn't happened yet.

Premier soccer will generally cost between $2k/year at the low end, for non-travel teams, to $8k/year (or more!) for teams in travel leagues. (These figures include all expenses, not just dues, and generally assume that parents/families are NOT traveling with their children to out-of-town matches or tournaments. If Mom or Dad comes along, the tab goes up even further).

The role of Peregrine/the Timbers/the Thorns

Finally, the part of this that is relevant to C.I. DeMann's article. How are the Timbers involved?

Quite a bit, actually. And a lot of that involvement is controversial, though in fairness to the Timbers, not all of their critics come to the table with clean hands.

First and foremost. It was mentioned above that OYSA runs leagues for competitive teams, as well as the year-end tournaments (Founders's, President's, and State Cups)? That's only technically true. OYSA, as the sanctioning body, is ultimately responsible for these things, but they outsource the actual operation of these things to... Peregrine LLC.

Back around the start of the prior decade or thereabouts, there was a schism in Oregon youth soccer, when several prominent clubs withdrew their A teams from OYSA and placed them in a new league called the Oregon Premier League, which was sanctioned by US Club. (This is different from the current league bearing that name). There are quite a few reasons for this that I won't get into, but the split severely damaged the finances of OYSA, causing it to nearly go insolvent. This was about the time that the Timbers moved up to MLS. Long story short, several clubs with close ties to the Timbers were enticed back into OYSA, and the OPL eventually folded, which some of the involved clubs are still bitter about. And OYSA was bailed out by Peregrine, which entered into a long term deal with the governing body for the Timbers/Thorns to manage the state competitive leagues and cups.

Many clubs, especially those who remained in OPL to the end, remain sore about this, and have accused the Timbers of profiteering off the clubs and OYSA, and of forcing OYSA into a bad deal financially. While I don't know if the Peregrine makes any money off of this (I doubt it is a major revenue stream), it is frequently alleged that this is a profit center for Merritt Paulsen.

Then there's what is known as the Timbers Alliance. There are six clubs in Oregon, one in Washington (Vancouver), and two in Idaho that have joined the Timbers Alliance. The exact terms of this deal are not publicly known, but what is known is that the involved clubs get a license to use the Timbers brand (and all of them have "Timbers" or "Thorns" in their name), and that these clubs are generally supportive of scouting and recruiting of their players by the Timbers Academy. (Some of the other clubs in town strongly dislike the Timbers "poaching" their players, and do things like barring Timbers' scouts from their practices, and there have been allegations that some clubs even threaten players who attend Timbers' tryouts and such with being benched). And since the Peregrine runs the OYSA leagues--there are occasionally accusations that these leagues and cups aren't being run fairly, and that the Alliance clubs are favored in some fashion. These allegations generally aren't substantiated, but they are often made.

Then there's the RTC (Regional Training Center) and ODP (Olympic Development Program), which are the USYSA platforms for talent identification. Peregrine runs those too in Oregon, and it's alleged (generally by the same clubs that object to Peregrine's involvement in OYSA) that rather than being a development platform, it's instead used as a scouting program. Many club coaches discourage participation, and many top players don't participate, which arguably blunts its effectiveness (and is offered up as grounds for why it isn't worth it to begin with).

Finally, there are the Timbers and Thorns academies itself. TA is, in many ways, a "true" academy program--it is free to players and families, and if you are good enough, you can earn a pro contract from the Timbers. Many people criticize the level of investment that MP puts in the program, and compared to the academies of other small-market teams like RSL, the TA hasn't been all that productive, but it exists, and it's the pinnacle of youth development for Oregon boys. (It's not fair to compare the Timbers to LAFC, FC Dallas, or the Red Bulls, given the much smaller player pool here. But it is fair to compare Portland to Salt Lake City, I would think).

Thorns Academy is a bit of a different boat. For some reason, MP has not chosen to fund this in the same way that he funds the boys' academy. Instead, it costs a lot of money for players to join, and its actual operation has been outsourced to a youth club. As mentioned above, it currently participates in ECNL (last season it was in the GDA), and it frequently loses games to other youth clubs in the state. I think it is partially subsidized by Peregrine, but a significant share of the expenses are paid by players and families.

There's your tour of Oregon youth soccer, particularly the levels that cater to the advanced player, and how our favorite pro teams are involved. I've deliberately not uttered the names of any youth clubs or coaches in this article, as this subject matter is quite a bit controversial. And I'm certain someone will come along and tell me I'm all wet.

This FanPost was written by a Stumptown Footy community member and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the site or its staff.