Welcome back to the Pyramid ladies and gentlemen! I'm really excited to be sharing this interview with you. Let's get right to the chase today.
For those of you who don't know, this is the second interview I've done for a team based in Mobile, with AFC Mobile being the other. Check that interview out by clicking THIS. Daniel Workman was gracious enough to spend some time answering questions with me over Twitter messenger. This is a long interview, but it's a really good one, covering all kinds of topics including the development of youth soccer players. Check it out.
Tell me about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, what your role is with Mobile City FC.
My name is Daniel Workman. I’m a proud husband and father of two boys: 10 and 5. I own my own company and am currently involved in several soccer-specific projects. One of those projects is Mobile City FC.
My introduction to the sport of soccer happened when I was six. A family in our church moved to Brazil to serve as missionaries when I was four years old. When their family returned for a break from their work in Brazil two years later, their sons were in the backyard playing soccer. I came over to the house to play, and asked if they wanted to play baseball but they had no interest. All they wanted to play was soccer because “everyone in Brazil plays soccer.” That moment, that day still influences my life today.
I was born on the gulf coast in Mobile, AL and grew up in the area. Soccer wasn’t a very big sport here in the past, so much so that you could barely find Recreational Leagues much less soccer complexes. It wasn’t uncommon to see Recreational Leagues operating as what basically amounts to organized pickup soccer in the outfields of baseball fields.
The good news is we’ve seen major growth locally in the sport in the last 10 years. For example, we have seen and are seeing municipalities making infrastructure investments in soccer facilities due to the numbers of kids playing soccer. All of these developments are encouraging for the growth of the sport in our area.
On a personal side, my wife and I decided when we had kids that we would have them play baseball in the spring and soccer in the fall on a recreational level only. We made a family rule that our kids could only participate in travel or club sports once they chose one sport they were committed to passionately pursue. When or if that happened was and is up to them. My 10 year old, who had been playing soccer recreationally since the age of 3, and I had conversation following the 2014 World Cup about what it takes to be a great soccer player. At the time, he had just turned 9 years old.
I explained to him the amount of time, energy, commitment, and passion required to develop his game to a much higher level. It was what I would call a ‘grown up’ conversation. We discussed how if he wanted to see how good he really could become that he needed to put the time in now with the idea being that by the age of 12 he and we would have a decent idea of his potential. Following that conversation, he decided he wanted to pursue soccer and set some goals of how much time he wanted to put in to the development of his game.
So we made a deal with him that if he proved his dedication and commitment to that process for five months that we would find him a travel soccer club opportunity. Needless to say, my 10 year old fulfilled and continues to fulfill his commitment to work hard, and we sought out a local club for him to join for the spring 2015 season.
After experiencing the typical American pay to play soccer club experience, we were underwhelmed. It is basically very expensive Recreational Soccer that due to its high fees prices out many urban and minority families in addition to many others. Another disturbing trend with pay to play clubs is the lack of a serious training environment. When you have expensive club teams practicing less than other recreational sports teams, you quickly realize the value is placed on the business of soccer rather than the development of soccer.
After offering free community soccer training over the summer, we decided to try and build a free, non pay to play club despite the current US Soccer system, from the ground up: Mobile City FC. Our mission is to provide players an opportunity to learn and develop as soccer players and as people regardless of socioeconomic status. The long term goal is to develop Mobile City FC into a club that has a Pro First Team, a full youth academy, all the way down to the grassroots level modeled after a typical European style organization. Currently my role is Executive Director and coach of our U12 (9-12 year old) youth squad.
I'm noticing this trend in new teams lately. A gap in development or cost being an issue for access to the game. Why are do you think these are such prevalent issues, and how can we close that gap?
First and foremost, priorities. I am a big believer in the idea that an organization or system does what it is structured to do. For example, if you want to be a team that plays short, one touch passes while playing out of the back, then you better structure your training sessions to choreograph & simulate those interchanges.
In regards to the American soccer landscape, US Soccer is a private organization sanctioned as a national federation by FIFA. In the realm of US Soccer, there is an operating structure that limits voices, competition, and change. It is structured against allowing a challenge to status quo. In looking into the organizational priorities of US Soccer, it is clear that money, control, and power are its main priorities. The growth of the game is seen as something to profit from rather than contribute towards.
Why is that the organization tasked with growing and developing the game of soccer in America is hellbent on keeping the game at all levels under lock and key? Creating barriers to entry creates artificial demand. This lack of access allows US Soccer and its sanctioned operating organizations (MLS, NASL, USL, NPSL, USYS, USCS, USASA, etc.) to profit through scarcity.
When an organization is structured to limit competition for profit, it will always struggle to be open to a change based on open competition. You can scream as loud as you like for changes in MLS or US Soccer for that matter, but they have feel little urgency or pressure to change. US Soccer is also setup in a way that stifles internal proactive change by its bylaws and limits access to change its leadership.
These systemic issues cause the access to Youth Soccer to be very expensive and prohibitive for a lot of families. In addition to access, US Soccer does not allow clubs to promote and grow organically through open access promotion and relegation nor does it allow Training Compensation or Solidarity Payments as rewards for youth development. As a result, Pay to Play Soccer Clubs are funded primarily by parents.
Because of the US Soccer system, these youth clubs are structured around revenue generation rather than development. Tournaments where teams play 4 games in 24 hours become the primary game experience for these clubs due to operating costs and club revenue generation while many of these clubs practice less than other recreational sports teams. Unfortunately US Soccer values the business of soccer rather than the development of soccer.
US Soccer is structured to withstand the change necessary for the game of soccer to thrive in America. It also doesn’t seemed overly interested in the prospect of systemic change. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I am all for identifying the issues with US Soccer and calling for change, but in order for American soccer to become fully accessible to everyone we need to build a FIFA-compliant model that can scale outside of the US Soccer ecosystem.
There are definitely some issues that need to be addressed in how soccer in the USA is approached. How do you plan on counteracting that with Mobile City, from youth on up to adult?
Knowing US Soccer and its subsidiaries exist to profit from the game, we also know the only path to grow the game of soccer in America. For those of us who want change, it must happen outside of the artificial US Soccer ecosystem. In time this alternate American soccer-verse will compete for their dollars. Then and only then will the changes to access happen in American soccer.
To accomplish this, it takes those dissatisfied with the current USSF system working LOCALLY to create and develop grassroots projects and launch independent clubs, REGIONALLY to network and establish partnerships and relationships, and NATIONALLY to organize competitions and scale local and regional projects and leagues.
For us with Mobile City FC we are currently working on several local initiatives:
Launched Phase 1 of the Youth Academy (U12 Squad of about 16 players ages 9-12)
Preparing to Launch an Amateur Adult Squad in the next 6-9 months
First Touch Program (Kids ages 3-6)
Community Outreach/ Clinic Program
Elementary School Partnership Program
Middle/ High School Resource Program
Metro Super League
We recognize that without deep roots and healthy branches, Mobile and the Mobile metro area won’t support a professional football club, much less a semi-pro or amateur first team. Emotional attachments and financial commitments come when a city and the surrounding area feel connected and invested on a personal level. It’s simple but not easy. It will take time and a lot of hard work to build a first class club. Developing from within will keep operating costs lower and provide potential revenues by selling players we develop. Longevity and sustainability can only be achieved if Mobile City FC develops and produces First Team players and works with other clubs around the country as they aim to develop and grow in their cities.
The key thing to realize is there are already a lot of soccer-first people that are not involved or very committed to the current USSF system. These people love the game, play the game, and live the game. And they want to see American Soccer rise and grow to a level of international excellence. If we each work in our own cities to connect with these people, we will be able to quickly develop soccer initiatives that will grow and will begin to change the American Soccer landscape.
That's all very true. Until people get involved, change won't happen, just like in politics. Here's something I've been wondering about. There's another group, AFC Mobile, that are looking into starting an amateur team in town in the next year or two. They've talked to a couple of leagues already, and have started talking with other groups and teams about creating a Gulf Coast Premier League. Have you had any interaction with them about helping launch that league and putting your adult team in it? Got to think a Mobile Derby would be pretty sweet for a brand new league.
We had some conversations a couple months ago about working together and possibly building a single club. I don’t want to speak for them as I am not involved with the AFC Mobile project. My understanding from our conversations is I think at this point some of the AFC Mobile guys are more interested in starting an NPSL-type organization following the Birmingham Hammers, New Orleans Jesters model that focuses on a top-down approach surrounding a senior team as its first and main priority.
With Mobile City FC we are looking to build and develop a different model that isn’t prevalent in the U.S. and we are willing to exit the USSF ecosystem to build it. We are more interested in taking a different path to building Mobile City FC. It requires developing a more comprehensive organization that builds from the grassroots up to the top, creates various revenue sources, and develops community partnerships. It also means we have to be willing to play the long game while we patiently build, network, and grow.
What we have right now is really two different paths to developing a club for Mobile. If we are both successful in accomplishing our goals, we will welcome a Mobile Derby as well as other conversations surrounding leagues, cups, etc. For now the dividing line between Mobile City FC and AFC Mobile is a philosophical one. Either way we look forward to playing our part in developing and growing the sport of soccer in the Mobile, Alabama area.
That's understandable. You said earlier you'd like to get a men's team off the ground in 6 to 9 months. Do you have a league in mind that you'd like to be playing in? I'm not overly familiar with the soccer scene in Alabama, since I don't live there.
We would start playing locally in an Adult USASA league and also play as an independent club looking to schedule matches with regional teams. Building as we grow organically.
Very cool. Now, how would you describe Mobile to an outsider like me? Or I guess you could say, what makes Mobile, Mobile?
Mobile is a coastal southern city situated right on Mobile Bay. We really only have 3 seasons: Spring, Summer, and Fall. Outdoor life is a big part of life on the Gulf Coast.
Mobile has a rich legacy in sports. It is hometown to five baseball Hall of Fame members (Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige, and Ozzie Smith) and rates as the third city with the most players honored in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Hall of fame. Only New York City and Chicago lead Mobile in this distinction. Mobile is also the hometown of other professional athletes in various other sports. In regards to soccer, our main claim to fame is that we are the birthplace of USMNT player Aron Jóhannsson.
Mobile is also the birthplace of Mardi Gras and even drops a giant moon pie on New Year’s Eve instead of a crystal ball. Situated only two hours east of New Orleans, Mobile is on the rise and the city is expected to see major growth and development over the next 10-15 years.
Three seasons, I like that answer. I have to know now, are you talking about a literal giant moon pie, like one you can eat? Because that might be the most wonderful thing I can imagine for New Years, aside from a beer fountain of some sort
Now, where do you hope to see Mobile City FC 5, 10, even 15 years from now?
The goal for Mobile City FC, especially at the start, is the development of youth players for our First Team that we can eventually sell to other clubs around the world. We want to be a player development hub for the Gulf Coast region of the U.S. The first 5 years is about laying the ground work, forming community partnerships, and developing the infrastructure for the future.
During this period we are looking to establish our ‘pipeline’ from Academy Youth Player to the First Team. We will also be laying the ground work for extensive grassroots programs that will include elementary schools, parent education, and local youth soccer competitions and training programs. We will look to raise the level of our First Team as our organization continues to grow during this initial 5 year period. It will start out as an amateur team with the goal being that the First Team is operating as a semi-pro team by the end of this first 5 year period.
Five years from now as we enter years 6 through 10, Mobile City FC will have players we have developed for 5 years that will be ages 14-17 that we will be looking to begin to integrate into our First Team. This is a crucial sticking point for us because we will primarily look to fill our First Team roster from within. It is important that our youth players see the pathway, experience the struggle of working their way up through the academy, and are able to legitimately make their way to the First Team.
We will be looking to make our First Team a pro team during years 6 through 10. Mobile City FC will also look to establish a high school aged academic program that will help prepare our players for life and a possible career in international markets. This program will likely include the option of residency for players in the program whose families do not live close enough to participate daily. It is during these years we will look to really ramp up our efforts of making Mobile City FC a football (soccer) factory.
Ten years from now and from there forward, Mobile City FC will look to compete nationally with our First Team and internationally as a player development hub. It is my hope that as our city grows Mobile City FC grows and vice versa. It will take a lot of hard work, effort, and focus. Lastly, for us to realize our potential, we will need to see the American Soccer market unleashed.
Very cool. Looks you are definitely taking solid steps for steady growth. That's what every team needs, even if they don't ever plan on going pro or reaching a higher level of the game, is goals. Always raising the bar and trying to be better. You ready for some short, rapid fire questions now?
Who's your crazy early pick to win MLS Cup next year?
*Laughter* Nice. What's your favorite book? It can be about soccer or anything else.
It’s hard to pick one, but I'll list a few favorites:
“The Best Question Ever” - Andy Stanley
“The Traveler’s Gift” - Andy Andrews
“Good to Great” - Jim Collins
“Rework” - Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
Favorite soccer player. One past, one present.
As a creative person, I love watching smart, intelligent, creative players. Past: Cruyff & Ronaldinho
Ah, Ronaldinho. I got into soccer just a little too late to really see him in his prime. Do you have a favorite soccer movie, book, or podcast?
Podcasts: 3FOUR3, Year Zero Soccer, & The Coaching Journey
What's your favorite league and team to watch and why?
La Liga and FC Barcelona.
Very nice, literally watching the beautiful game at it's most beautiful. Where can people find out more about Mobile City FC?
To wrap this up, I'm going to give you a soapbox to stand on. What would you say to all the soccer fans out there about why they should support their local teams?
This may be a shock to some, but I don’t believe in supporting clubs or teams just because they are local. I believe in supporting local soccer. There are many ways soccer supporters can support and grow the game in your local community. It may be by buying game tickets, sponsoring youth clubs, volunteering with grassroots soccer programs, or buying club merchandise.
Instead, “Buying Local” or “Supporting Local” is something that should be earned by clubs investing their time, energy, and resources in their local community. Excellence is rewarded, and as local clubs work to raise the level of excellence at their clubs they will find more supporters and better opportunities. In order for the level of excellence to rise in American soccer, clubs need to raise their standards at a local level.
We need to change our mindset of “demanding better local support” to “earning better local support.” If we all find a way to invest in local soccer, we will see American soccer and its clubs improve. And we need this improvement to bring pressure to open access for clubs who aspire to rise to global standards. Nothing would help local soccer more than an open system filled with local clubs investing in their local communities.
I think I've got everything I'll need here. That's a very solid, very valid closing remark. Earn better local support, don't demand it. I like that. Thanks for taking the time to do this, it's been really cool and I feel like I've learned a lot.
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