The Westport Soccer Association is one small cog in the soccer world. It’s overseen by state and national organizations, and ultimately the biggest ruling body of all: FIFA.
But Westport has always punched above its weight in soccer. We’ve produced far more than our share of professional players. NBC Sports analyst and former national team athlete Kyle Martino is a Staples High School product; so is noted Clemson University coach Mike Noonan. His brother Mark is a former MLS executive, and recently returned from a stint as CEO of one of Africa’s top clubs.
Add one more Westport name to the list of soccer luminaries. Skip Gilbert was recently named CEO of US Youth Soccer. With over 3 million players ages 5-19, 300,000 coaches and 600,000 volunteers and administrators, it’s the largest member of US Soccer, the sport’s American governing body.
Gilbert is not a native Westporter, but his soccer pedigree is as impressive as anyone who is. He grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and attended Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey. His love of goalkeeping was cemented when his JV coach told his parents, “Skip has absolutely no regard for his personal safety.”
His select Mercer County team played men’s squads from Europe, and NASL reserve sides. “We got our butts kicked,” he says. “But it was a great learning experience.”
Gilbert rose up the soccer ladder: Olympic Development Program, University of Vermont (majoring in economic and political science), Tampa Bay Rowdies, training with Sheffield United and clubs in Holland and Hong Kong.
But the NASL folded. The indoor league paid poorly. “My parents had put way too much money into my education,” he says.
So Gilbert sold advertising for Ziff-Davis and The Sporting News. Then his career got really interesting.
He worked in management capacities with the US Tennis Association, USA Triathlon, USA Swimming and US Soccer. He was chair of the National Governing Bodies Council.
Most recently Gilbert was managing director of operations, marketing and development for the US Anti-Doping Agency.
He, his wife Jenifer and their 3 children lived in Colorado, Darien, South Norwalk and Ridgefield, before moving 4 years ago to Westport.
“My wife is a general contractor and interior decorator,” he jokes. “It’s much better to trade houses than husbands.”
Now he’s back in soccer — the sport he loves. He oversees those 3 million players, along with 55 state associations, a national championship series, many other programs, and 13 conferences. He’s youth soccer’s liaison to the national US Soccer governing body.
His take on the state of youth soccer overall will interest the parents of Westport’s many young players — and those in other sports too.
“So much of our clubs, leagues and national association is focused on our top 15% pyramid,” he says. “We have to spend more time on the recreational side.
“It’s a social issue. Kids get to 13 or 14, and think if they’re not on the competitive side of the game, they can’t play. That’s a huge opportunity we’ve lost. We need to keep kids involved.”
He advocates eliminating “recreational” from the vernacular. “If you’re on the field, you’re a player,” Gilbert says.
He also realizes the need to “get control of sideline conduct. It’s the worst now it’s ever been.”
His daughter Greta no longer plays soccer (she’s a high-level rower at the Saugatuck Rowing Club). But when she was on a club team a few years ago, Gilbert says he was “shocked at what I heard on the sidelines. And coaches didn’t address it.”
It’s endemic to all sports. So Gilbert is working with his counterparts at national organizations for football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball and other sports to find solutions.
“We’re losing volunteers and referees everywhere because of the sidelines,” he says. “70% of referees say they’ve been verbally abused. Some are physically abused. And 50% don’t report it.”
It’s hard, he knows, for parents to keep quiet. But, he notes, “if you want your kid to have a voice on the field, you can’t have a voice on the sideline.
“You can’t yell at coaches and referees. And you can’t yell at your kids, or talk about coaches and referees, on the ride home. If you do, we won’t have a sport.”
The ability to do something about issues like these, Gilbert is says, is “why I’m thrilled to be here. I want to leave the sport in a better position.”
Gilbert has not been involved in Westport’s soccer programs. When Greta played, he says, “I was just a parent.”
But now he’s in charge of hundreds of thousands of parents, and millions of players. To get a sense of life at the ground level, he may check out a game or two this spring with the Westport Soccer Association.
If you see him, say hi.