By Mike Woitalla
The NorCal Premier League, with nearly 200 Northern California clubs, covers an area that's larger than England and has one of the world's most ethnically and economically diverse populations. NorCal clubs range from those with million dollar budgets to ones that depend solely on volunteer staff.
NorCal President Benjamin Ziemer has launched a Club Outreach Project to aid clubs -- most of which serve Latino youth -- that struggle to meet the demands of the modern American youth soccer structure.
Ziemer assigned Nick Lusson, the Technical Director of the Dublin United Soccer League and assistant coach of Cal State East Bay’s men’s and women’s teams, to head the project.
SOCCER AMERICA: What are the main challenges faced by the clubs targeted by the Club Outreach Project?
NICK LUSSON: Most of these are low-income communities. Most are Hispanic clubs. They don’t have a big volunteer base. They don’t have a lot of finances. They don’t have the level of relationship with their cities for field access.
Most all of them are volunteer-run, with volunteer coaches -- volunteers across the board.
Those organizations are put in the same mix, the same league with clubs that have a full-time director and assistant director, staff coaches, full-time paid administrators -- tons of money and tons of volunteer support, and their cities love them. There’s this have and have-not dynamic.
It creates a lot of tension and that’s the challenge of a lot of these clubs. They’re put in the same league with these other clubs and held to the same standards, but lacking the resources and ability to really be able to match them.
SA: So NorCal was concerned it would lose clubs from low-income areas?
NICK LUSSON: Yes, that’s what caused Benjamin Ziemer to get this prioritized as a project.
We don’t want to lose these clubs from our environment. I think they’re critical to the experience in the quality of play. We have to have this diversity.
Hayward Youth Soccer Club is a perfect example. It’s one of the clubs we’re working with. Hayward had two boys who made the national team pool. They’ve got some teams that are phenomenal.
We sat down with them. I said look, “If I put my teams on the field against your teams, your teams are going to smash us, everyday of the week.” They have some incredible players. But the club struggles with their paperwork and administrative stuff. There are these constant issues of fields, and referees and parent conduct. All these issues.
SA: What’s the strategy of the Outreach Program?
NICK LUSSON: First of all, I think it's important to point out that the clubs that are being helped out in this program are being run by some incredibly passionate and dedicated people.
You have a few volunteers trying to do all the 1,001 jobs that the bigger, more established clubs have an army of paid administrators and professional DOC's doing for them.
I've really been impressed by the intentions and dedication of these people to give so much to the game, and even more so as they then get criticized pretty heavily for the tasks that fall through -- like not having adequate fields, missing paperwork, or not responding to e-mails on time. Part of our purpose in the project is to provide some resources and guidance to these individuals to help them be more successful and sustainable in their roles.
SA: How is the project progressing?
NICK LUSSON: I’ve got two people working with me who both have experience as DOCs doing all the legwork: Andrew Ziemer and Omar Cervantes.
A lot of it right now is us meeting with them and really understanding their challenges first. There’s a natural thing that you’ll assume what other people’s problems are before you actually listen to them. It’s become a reminder of that. We’re hearing first-hand from the clubs what they already have in place and what they don’t have.
A lot of them spend each day just treading water to keep things running today and not really planning for improvements going forward.
We want to help create plans for the club that can be passed on to the next person so it’s not all dependent on this one guy or these two people. A lot of them work that way, so if one guy leaves tomorrow, that whole club falls apart, because there’s no plan of succession. Nothing’s written down.
SA: How can you help the clubs with the administrative challenges?
NICK LUSSON: We’re putting together a drop-box of club resources. We’re pulling examples from a lot of clubs. Sample agendas. Sample curriculums. Bi-laws. Budgets. Presenting them with tools. You can take these and apply them, tweak them to your club’s needs. So they don’t have to reinvent the wheel on that stuff.
We want to help them to develop tools. The general sense is the “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for one day, teach him how to fish and he’ll …” We’re not coming in to fix your problems. We want to help you get to a place where you can fix your own.
Some of the ways we want to help are with things like how to file for non-profit status, board structure and volunteer outreach, web site management.
SA: Fields must be a big issue in lower-income areas ...
NICK LUSSON: One thing I’m investigating is the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s field grants. It’d be tough for anyone of these clubs to independently pursue this. But can we, as a state association, bring in a grant writer to work with all these organizations? If we got one person working for all these clubs I think it could work pretty well.
SA: How much of an issue is the divide between the richer, mainly white, clubs and the lower-income, mainly Latino clubs?
NICK LUSSON: There are some cultural issues as well. They became a whole big piece in a lot of these conversations.
You basically have suburban upper middle-class clubs complaining about the conditions and the experiences playing at the inner city or low-income community clubs. And we’re getting stories from the other side of just outright racist conduct, behavior and attitude. It does cut both ways.
SA: I have heard referees claim that sideline behavior of adults is worse from low-income community clubs. I’ve also heard club coaches from low-income areas lament the fact that teams from richer areas don’t want to play on their fields -- the only fields they have and on which their own children play on daily …
NICK LUSSON: There are cultural and socio-economic dynamics going on here. That's been an intriguing conversation going on with these clubs that was an unintended facet of this undertaking. Both sides -- the middle- and upper-class suburban clubs and the low-income community clubs -- have some valid points here.
It's clear to me from just this short amount of time spent with both sides that all parties need to do a better job to bridge this gap.