U.S. Soccer Backtracks, Drops Youth Technical Coach Tom Byer's Pilot Program

Tom Byer, known for instilling technical skills among youth, had the plug pulled on his U.S. Soccer pilot program before it even got off the ground. He explains his side of the story on the Planet Fútbol Podcast.
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When the news broke last October that the innovative soccer development coach Tom Byer was finally going to work in his native U.S. as part of a new U.S. Soccer program, it generated a lot of positive response in an American soccer community reeling from the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Byer, a U.S.-born player who became a technical skills coach, had become well known as Tom-san in Japan, where his coaching schools popped up all over the country and he appeared on television regularly. Several of Japan’s men’s and women’s national team players had come through those programs as the nation had improved on the world stage, and Tom-san had been hired by other Asian countries to help with their soccer development, including the Chinese government.

Last year, the Tokyo-based Byer signed on to conduct a pilot program in Seattle based on his Soccer Starts At Home philosophy, which involves working with parents and kids to acquire basic soccer skills between the ages of 2 and 6. The pilot program was being funded with $75,000 from U.S. Soccer and $25,000 from the Washington Youth Soccer association. The hope was that it would serve as a model for states around the country to scale up Byer’s program and change the culture of soccer in the United States.

The excitement over Byer’s long-awaited work with U.S. Soccer was also stoked by a story on HBO’s Real Sports.

But, as Byer explains on the new Planet Fútbol Podcast, the departure of former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati—who had championed Byer’s program—took away his support inside U.S. Soccer, which chose not to extend its funding for the program after the initial six-month contract ran out at the end of December.

“They were the ones who came to us asking for help, and then they dropped out first,” Byer said. “It was bad timing as well. As everyone knows, we had the big election that came up after the beginning of the year. So the landscape changed. This was basically being driven by Sunil, this initiative, and things turned out not as people had suspected it would turn out when we first started it.

“One of the stumbling blocks we detected was inside U.S. Soccer the coaches education department, these guys were finding a hard time,” Byer added. “They wanted to put what they called some metrics around the program. How do you measure it? What are the outcomes? How are we going to know that it’s working? They were always stumbling over this question. And the point for us was what was the program going to bring? It was a couple things: Increase participation rates, hopefully. Increase player retention rates between 6 and 12. And improve quality, technical ability. Those are what the outcomes are that we spoke about.

“But they were always stuck on those metrics, about how they were going to measure it. The contract period was for six months between June and December, but what happened was Seattle [Sounders] liked the program so much they didn’t want to start the program at the end of the year. They basically wanted to kick it off at the beginning of this year’s season, in March. So we get out of December and into January, and things kind of started to fall apart after that.”

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Terry Fisher, the CEO of Washington State Youth Soccer, told SI.com: “The ‘metrics’ that the U.S. Soccer technical group needed to find are very difficult to identify in a culture-change project like Soccer Starts at Home. Because it is not measurable in the result today. It’s measurable over a generation. My point to everybody was this is a culture change that is going to be part of our community programs.”

Added Byer: “The agreement ran out for the pilot program in December. Then we had a series of conversations with U.S. Soccer, and basically they told us from their side that they were only in this to fund the first part of creating the pilot, but they had no funding to execute anything. … The reality was they told us they were only going to devise the pilot, and that they weren’t going to go any further in extending that agreement. And basically if you want to do it, then you’re going to have to find your own funding to do that. And more or less kind of good luck with it. That’s where we wound up. And then the Seattle Sounders, when they found out U.S. Soccer was out of it, they weren’t ready to pick up and take the lead because they were of the same assumption as we were that U.S. Soccer was going to see this through the pilot phase.”

Fisher said he still had hope that a potential corporate sponsor could be found to support Byer’s program. They are still working together to try and build an Internet-based platform for use with the program. Byer says: “My company here in Japan decided we would invest into this [Internet] platform. So we’re right now building a platform that can be used possibly with the Washington State association, but obviously it wouldn’t have the potential impact it would have had with the Sounders machine behind it or the U.S. Soccer machine.”

SI.com received the following response from U.S. Soccer: “The core objective of the Innovate to Grow Fund is to help members launch new and innovate programs to grow participation in their markets. After successfully meeting the application criteria, Washington Youth Soccer was awarded and received a fully-funded grant based on their proposal. Having chosen to partner with Tom Byer to build a program based on “Soccer Starts at Home,” the results after six months were insufficient to assess if the program would be scalable across the U.S. There was no clear impact made in the market to assess, and therefore nothing to measure or judge moving forward.”

Byer was asked on the podcast whether it’s accurate to say that he felt like he had support from Gulati, the Sounders and the state association, but he didn’t feel like he had support from U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and the federation’s coaches education group.

“Yeah,” he says. “That’s pretty accurate. That’s how I see it.”

Grant Wahl has covered soccer at Sports Illustrated for 22 years. His new book is Masters of Modern Soccer: How The World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game.