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The wave of optimism that has bullied its way through the minds of US football fans often masks the underlying challenges that still face the game. They’re numerous in quantity and divide a nation that is ambitiously plotting its path towards becoming a genuine global player.

While all fans of the US game are in agreement that the game needs to grow and needs to develop, the path that should be taken has proved divisive and bitterly controversial. For all the fans of Major League Soccer in its current guise, a similar number want promotion and relegation, not to mention a lift on the restrictions when it comes to player development.

Similar divisions are also found at grassroots level, where thousands of clubs across the land insist on a pay-to-play model. For those in countries where you pay a small amount at every game – most of the world leaders in the game, it should be said – it’s staggering to consider that many players are paying upwards of a thousand dollars twice a year just to play for a club.

What’s turns this story from staggering to frustrating is that these players often encounter poor facilities, poor coaching and little chances of progression, despite their parents’ considerable outlay. Furthermore, such a model alienates the talent from lower-income households, something that makes up a huge portion of America in the areas where football is most popular.

It’s a devil of a situation – one where talented players are denied the chance to even play the game at any sort of organised level because of their socio-economic background. Imagine if Brazilian players from the favelas in São Paulo and Rio de Janiero were denied such chances. Would we have ever seen Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo? The answer is resounding: no.

That’s why a new wave of clubs – albeit still in chronic short supply – are taking matters into their own hands in the United States and saying no to pay-to-play. They’re embracing a more ‘European’ model – focusing on technical advancement on the best possible pitches, modern training techniques and an open door policy. One such club is Kew Forest FC in Queens, New York.

Kew Forest represent one of the most intriguing stories of player development unfolding in the New York region at the moment – a hotbed of talent and a city gripped by football. Crucially, Kew Forest is a club that the city needs, not an organisation there for moneymaking ambition, but one that offers a viable alternative to the professional academies of New York City FC and Red Bull New York.

An often overlooked challenge of football in the US is the sheer distances between the players and the training facilities. A young player in New York City offered a chance to play for the Red Bulls would have to travel 90 minutes back and forth to the training ground for sessions. In England it wouldn’t be allowed, nor would it in Germany, France, Spain or Italy. It’s simply too far, and impacts the player’s life in a way that is detrimental to their development off the pitch.

It’s even more challenging if you’re from outside the city, or from the eastern suburbs like Long Island or Queens. Sure, NYCFC is a tempting offer, but their spaces are enormously limited. In a huge metropolitan area extending north into Westchester County, talented players without the means to pay exorbitant fees are left without a home.

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Kew Forest training overseen by coach Carlos Santander, a former professional player

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That’s where Kew Forest come in – a club with a clear mission statement, a respectable philosophy when it comes to player recruitment and a young, vibrant leadership team. Heading up that team is club president Ben Falvo, a student of the game and a man whose vision has led to the inception of this hugely interesting club.

“I started Kew Forest after trying to get back into the game in a playing capacity. Once again, just as a child, requiring payment to play a game. As an adult I had no problem coming up with the money, however did see some major issues with handling and management,” says Falvo.

It says a great deal that a even successful professional from New York, committed to the growth of the US game and passionate about its potential, was moved to say no, despite having the funds to pay.

“I started asking questions about this local team and needless to say I wasn’t contacted again. I thought to myself, we [the United States] can do better. After spending a year working with Year Zero Soccer and having a background in media, and even dabbling in the event production space, I saw this as an opportunity to create something that is run like a proper club outside of the United States.

“I also saw an opportunity to speak for the thousands of kids in Queens who cannot afford to pay to play in the current structure of this country.”

Football has a funny way of plating seeds in people’s heads. For Falvo, a product of the pay-to-play system himself, the chance to give something back to the local community, for players of all abilities, was a motivating factor.

Any good club, however, must have aims. While the premise behind Kew Forest FC is that everyone is welcome, with no pay-to-play but the same standards of coaching and facilities as clubs that are charging thousands – not to mention the two professional academies in the area – the idea extends far beyond just a kick-about in the park.

“In the short-term we are building a quality unit of guys for an adult team to play in a regional league called the LISFL. This league has teams at the adult level in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. We are building a team we believe will do well in the US Open Cup and hopefully give a few of the big guys a run for their money.

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New York

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“Long term we plan on advancing into higher ranks. Sadly, the club will have to pay its way into higher-level competition in a league. It’s not the monetary restraint that is an issue but the lack of meritocracy in the game in the States.

“Additionally we are constructing a program providing youth players a club to train with and compete at the highest level possible for free. This type of training for youngsters is completely different from other clubs in the region and United States, but we feel that providing free access is our cost for R&D. This will help us develop the best player for our club but also help children succeed and get to the next level.”

That’s important for Kew Forest. It’s not just about player development for the sake of it; it’s about giving players the chance to reach their potential, whether that takes them to the local park on Sunday, the collegiate game or the professional game. With strong links to a number of professional clubs in Europe, Kew’s aim is to produce talent that can one day push forward in the professional game.

Falvo’s ambition is admirable, but realism is something he has to consider at every step. The US system is a costly endeavour, with many teams paying tens of thousands to move up the leagues. A Major League Soccer club alone has to stomp up $100 million for the privilege to join an archaic franchise system.

“It’s all about revenue streams for any club,” says Falvo. “I consistently feel that the player cannot be both the product and the source for income. So we look at what is possible for us right now.

“Currently we have three sources available to us and one more down the road. Firstly we have advertising sponsorship. We have one great sponsor who gets our mission in Greenlight Energy. We are actively building partnerships now with other regional businesses that see this as a perfect opportunity to communicate their involvement with their brand.

“Ticketing is another source, which is still a bit in the making as we use a small community stadium. Finally, merchandise, for sale via our website and at events and games.”

Raising money is the great challenge but having a renewable energy company as a lead sponsor seems apt for a club demonstrating all the hallmarks of tomorrow’s player development system in the US, today. It speaks volumes that such a company is willing to back the project, with others waiting in the wings to become involved in the action.

There’s also a longer term, more ambitious aim to generate funds that will help grow the club. “Player sales to Europe would be a source for us in the future,” says Falvo, in hope and expectation. While that step is still some time away, Kew Forest are going about laying the foundation to a project that could have enormous repercussions for the game in Queens and wider New York City.

For the thousands of clubs charging thousands of dollars a year, there’s often a disconnect between the community and the club. After all, how can you call yourself a community club if you alienate a vast number of people who can’t afford to play? For Falvo, being a part of the community is as important as anything, and he’s clear on how to do it:

“We are creating a free recreational league for the very little ones in our immediate community. Furthermore, every month the players, management and staff will be donating our time for a different charitable group in Queens.

“Our first charitable outing is with Friends with Four Paws, a wonderful group that works with homeless dogs and cats. Our second will be with City Harvest. City Harvest helps feed the nearly 1.4 million New Yorkers facing hunger each year.”

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Kew Forest training

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Club, charity and community hub: it’s an exciting prospect for New Yorkers.

Ambition must go hand-in-hand with clever recruitment. If the long-term goal is to help talent reach its potential, spotting that talent early is absolutely imperative. With a curriculum that focuses on attitude and application at a younger age, not just the most gifted kid on show, not to mention trials that are conducted over weeks so players are given a fair chance to show their potential, Kew Forest are now in the process of recruiting.

“What most don’t know is that NYC is filled with great players: former college players, immigrants working odd jobs to get by, some who were former pros in their respective countries. We really want intelligent, technically proficient players. We aren’t so concerned with athleticism like many other clubs.

“With the quality of our coaches, we can help players improve in that respect and play to their maximum.”

While the concept behind Kew Forest is progressive and noble, many will question whether such a model can actually work in the US game. After all, the clubs charging huge fees per season often claim they’re necessary to keep the show on the road.

“Yes, it can work,” says Falvo. “It’s about looking at the revenue streams. We also feel as a brand, and a community business, a certain level of diligence is required to maintain authenticity. Our badge is emblematic of Queens. It literally is based on the borough flag. That’s not to say it’s a New York City thing, but you really can’t talk it if you haven’t lived it and an authentic product and brand go a long way.

“So to reiterate, if you have a solid product, positive messaging and are fiscally responsible with your revenue streams, there is no reason why your club cannot be self-sufficient.”

With Kew Forest currently fielding an exciting adult team full of local talent, some ex-pros and a number of ex-college players, the community now has a chance to back their project. With Kew Forest’s aim to satisfy the locals and give something back to the honest citizens of their neighbourhood, it’s down to the locals to embrace their project, support their games and find out more.

From the outside looking in, I’ll never quite understand the pay-to-play model in the United States. Having coached professionally in the US and England, the best talent often comes from the families unable to afford such fees. And while some will argue that it’s not always about the talent, that participation is most important, then look no further than Kew Forest Football Club, who are in the unique position of offering the chance to play for free and improve at the same time.

It’s a wonderful model based on what football development should – and inevitably will – look like in the United States in years to come.

By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem