Words by MIKE JACOBS
As the debate between High School soccer and the United States Soccer Development Academy continues to forge forward, there was a lot of national media attention directed their way this past week.
Sam Borden of the New York Times wrote about the choices that players involved in both affiliations are being ased to make.
Professional sports leagues in the United States have long relied on high schools to help cultivate the country’s best athletes. Rosters in Major League Baseball, the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. are filled with former scholastic stars, many of whom hold tightly to their quintessentially American memories of homecoming, letterman jackets and games played under the Friday night lights.
But for the organization charged with producing soccer players who can compete with the world’s best, that system has been deemed inadequate. The United States Soccer Federation announced a new policy recently that will uncouple high school soccer and the training of top youth players, a move that is unique among major team sports in this country and, some believe, is indicative of a trend in the way the United States develops elite athletes.
The shift by the federation applies to its top boys teams around the country, requiring players on those teams — known as Development Academy teams — to participate in a nearly year-round season and, by extension, forcing them and their soccer moms and dads to decide whether they should play for their club or play for their school.
The move has stirred a fierce debate among players, coaches and parents from California to Connecticut. In community forums, during town-hall-style meetings and on Internet message boards, those in favor have lauded the move as a requisite (and obvious) step to raising the quality of soccer in the United States, while critics have labeled it misguided, overzealous and an unnecessary denial of a longstanding American experience for children.
The federation’s decision is believed to be the first instance of a major team sport’s national organization keeping some of its members from playing scholastically. For players like Steven Enna, a sophomore and star forward at St. James Academy in Lenexa, Kan., who also plays for his local academy team, Sporting Kansas City, the shift has created an unsettling situation made stickier because his father is also his high school coach.
“It’s awkward,” Enna said. “You look at LeBron James — he played for his high school and went pro. Why do we have to give it up?”
The short answer, according to the national federation, is that soccer is different. If the United States hopes to compete with traditional soccer powers like Spain, Brazil and the Netherlands, the organization said, it must close the gap with those countries when it comes to identifying and training the best players.
The introduction of the Development Academy program — which began in 2007, features enhanced coaching and competition (but with a focus on out-of-competition training), and now consists of 78 clubs nationwide — was a step in that process, according to the academy’s director of scouting, Tony Lepore. But even five years ago, Lepore said, top soccer officials were doing research that consistently led them to believe this latest model, featuring a 10-month season and player exclusivity, was the only choice.
High school soccer has different rules from the international game — unlimited substitutions, most notably — as well as different priorities and tactics from an Academy program, Lepore said. Losing the players for several months each year was costly.
Lepore added that despite the uproar, this is in many ways a baby step toward the systems in place around the world. After all, even with the changes, Lepore said, the average Development Academy team will practice 200 to 260 hours a season.
“They’re probably closer to 600 hours a year in Spain or Holland,” he said. “We’re not surprised by the reaction, and we get it: high school sports are a big part of the culture. But when it comes to elite soccer players and their development, this change is optimal.”
Kevin Baxter of the Chicago Tribune writes of how the opportunities posed are 'win-win', and that elite young U.S. players will get more training while more opportunities will be created for high school players.
When Marie Ishida, head of the one of the nation's largest governing bodies for high school athletics, first heard that U.S. Soccer was planning to force kids to choose between playing for their school and training to play for their country she protested in what she felt was the most appropriate way possible.
She wrote a letter.
"Well, that didn't settle very well with us," remembers Ishida, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees sports programs at more than 1,500 member schools. "They frankly stopped talking to us."
So it was hardly news when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy followed through on its promise and expanded the academy season three months to 40 weeks overall, from September to June, beginning next fall. What may have been surprising, though, was the fact that Ishida and others like her have apparently made their peace with the plan.
"Our attitude's kind of been 'OK, we lose the elite athletes. But that leaves a spot for somebody else,'" she says.
In fact, U.S. Soccer's decision — once fraught with controversy — benefits both the national program as well as high school and other youth leagues. For the national program, lengthening the calendar for academy players will help close a critical gap the U.S. has long conceded to other nations, where top youth players train for 10 or more months each year.
But because the academy is open to elite players only, the loss to high school and other programs will be fewer than 4,000 U 15-16 and U 17-18 male players nationwide — or less than 1% of the current player pool. So while that's not enough to seriously affect the level of play, it does create 4,000 opportunities for kids who might not have made the cut before.
What started out as a feud has ended in a cease-fire — with both sides rightly claiming victory.
"They said their goal was to win a World Cup and they felt the only way to do that was to identify some of these club programs early," Ishida says. "And frankly CIF — and any state association's goal — is not necessarily to produce World Cup athletes or Division I scholarship recipients.
"Our goal is about participation. And about competition."
Regardless as to whether you side in favor of the USSDA or High School, there is no question that this move has created more discussion about the best way to develop players in our country - something that has never been delved into to this extent prior, and has to ultimately assist in catching our nation up to the rest of the world.