American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) registration signs have sprouted up all over San Diego County roads like summer mums.  So, as Running USA, Road Runners Club of America, and USATF continue to discuss, develop, and implement kid’s initiatives to draw more children into the running fold, AYSO offers a proven map of success from which to construct the road ahead.

AYSO was established in the Los Angeles area in 1964 with nine teams. The dream of a group of devoted soccer enthusiasts who started the organization in a garage, today AYSO has more than a thousand leagues, 50,000 teams and more than 600,000 players, 40% of whom are girls. It also employs 50 people at the AYSO National Office in Torrance, California.

Local leagues vary in size from several hundred to several thousand kids, range in age from 4 to 18, and are divided into regions, areas, and sections nationwide.  AYSO is structured around what they call their six philosophies: Everyone Plays™, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, Good Sportsmanship and Player Development.

“Everyone Plays™ and Balanced Teams is fundamental to the organization,” says Lynn Berling-Manuel, the chief marketing officer at AYSO’s national office.  “Finding that balance is a little tricky, but what we do is follow the playground model.  We divide the good kids, the medium kids, and the less good kids. Then we spread around each group into different teams.  We learn that way that the good kids become the leaders, and the not-so-good kids improve. It’s a requirement of AYSO that every kid plays 50% of every game.

“It’s why soccer has done so well,” she continues.  “For a number of generations we guarantee that every kid plays, and then those who wish can graduate to more time-enhanced programs.”

Costs range from $40 – $125 per child to play an entire season, $15 of which is remitted to the national office. Everything else remains local.  The bulk of AYSO’s funding comes from $80 million in registration fees. In addition, AYSO works closely with 20 corporations that are part of the organization’s National Team of Sponsors. ( By comparison, the entire USATF annual budget is $20 million.)

The length of season is up to the local leaders, and much of that is dependent on the weather.  In many cases the single fee allows kids to play most of the year, including some winter indoor leagues.

Great Soccer Starts Here

Though AYSO is premised around recreation rather than competition, the national office has recently launched a new ad campaign, “Great Soccer Starts Here”, which features a number of famous AYSO alumni like Landon Donovan and Julie Foudy.  And with the organization’s 50th anniversary coming in 2014, there are discussions about reintroducing a national championships tournament which was originally part of the organization’s model.

“We have seen a number of highly competitive programs – well, let me call them programs for kids who want to commit more time – come into being in recent years,” outlined Berling-Manuel.  “We call those programs AYSO EXTRA.  California also stages a State Cup, and other states are beginning to follow California there, as well.”

While running has grown and matured around the local event model, AYSO is centrally run.  So while there are in excess of 1000 local leagues, each has the same tax ID number.

     “We’re a little different in that way than most youth organizations,” admits Ms. Berling-Manuel.  “And it’s not always as smooth as we’d hope, but we are constantly searching for the right balance between the national and local needs.  The national office does provide a national tool kit to local leaders.  We also feature star athletes, and have uniformity to our look.”

2011 is the 40th anniversary of girls playing soccer in AYSO with its first official team in 1971. It’s also the 20th anniversary of the Very Important Player (VIP) program, for players with special needs. Together, they help celebrate the inclusiveness and diversity of AYSO soccer, making 2011 “The Year of Everyone Plays”.

With several successful kids running programs already in place, like New York Road Runner’s “A Running Start” and “Mighty Milers”, the Big Sur Marathon funded “Just Run”, and Road Runners Club of America’s “Kids Run the Nation”, it may be a bridge too far to coordinate youth running under one banner like AYSO.  But the success of soccer in reaching into the imagination of America’s youth over the last two generations, through AYSO and others, should not be lost on the engineers of running’s drive toward building a similarly successful road ahead.



  1. Scott, hope you are feeling better. I agree, running for its own sake is not appealing to kids or dogs. There has to be a fun / team focus to maintain interest. But if we encourage team-oriented relays, maze runs, sprints, hurdles, jumping, throwing, tugs of war, etc. within a league setting, we may have an outside chance. In other words, it shouldn’t be about distance running at all, but T&F oriented, instead.

    But look at the AYSO budget, $80million per year and a 50-person, full-time national staff. USATF’s entire budget is one-fourth that for all things running, youth to professionals, masters to trail, then race walking, too. And Running USA is microscopic by comparison to USATF. Accordingly, neither T&F nor running stand a chance of developing a working model without a serious plan and the funding to back it up. Perhaps we should become a junior partner to AYSO, instead, as they lay the base of fitness through soccer. Then we stage some running competitions among the teams as a sidelight, and maybe that way discover the next Andrew Wheating hiding in their midst.

  2. I know this is a stark thing to say, but I firmly believe it’s on the mark – running for kids isn’t fun. If if isn’t fun, they won’t want to do it and/or continue. When it’s incorporated in other activities, it’s fun. I know there are age group runners that emerge from running-specific programs, but they are the exception, a tiny minority compared to those that continue in almost every other sport w/youth organized programs. scott

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