Soccer’s New Model Forces High School Players to Choose
By SAM BORDEN
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 choose between playing for their club and playing 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 separating 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.”
For advocates of the previous system, however — in which the Development Academy’s schedule typically broke for the scholastic season and players were free to join their school squads — the sacrifices required by this shift are too great. Dan Woog, the boys soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., recalled the night his team won a league championship several years ago and a group of players showed up at a diner afterward with their championship medals around their necks.
Suddenly, the other customers in the diner — the majority of them Westport residents — stood up and spontaneously gave the players a standing ovation. The players beamed.
“They’re going to remember that the rest of their lives,” Woog said. “They felt like kings. That’s not going to happen in the academy.”
Woog added: “We should be in the business of letting kids be kids. Not forcing them into thinking they’re going to be playing for Arsenal or Manchester United two years from now.”
Other high school coaches share Woog’s sentiment, and in high school soccer hotbeds like St. Louis, the shift, which will be instituted in the fall, has been scrutinized. Terry Michler, who has won more than 800 games as the coach at Christian Brothers College High School, said he was skeptical that the move would have the desired effect. He also said that keeping a larger number of children from playing with their schools as a service to the significantly smaller number who may ultimately turn professional or play for the national team was unreasonable.
“There’s about 3,000 kids on these teams across the country, but there’s not 3,000 future professionals out there,” Michler said. “There’s not 300 of them. So some of these kids and their parents are going to be misled.”
Michler added that playing for a high school team offered athletes social and academic advantages that do not exist with a club team, though some academy backers disputed that. Chris Hayden, the vice president for youth soccer with Dallas of Major League Soccer, which is one of a few clubs that voluntarily went to a 10-month season even before this latest shift, said his club was committed to all aspects of its players, including academics and their future college prospects.
For Alex Frankenfeld, who passed up varsity soccer at St. Mark’s School of Texas several years ago to play with Dallas, it is that dedication that has contributed to his having no regrets.
“I have goals and aspirations that I want to achieve,” he said, though he added that after making his decision, he rarely went to the St. Mark’s games even though he had friends still playing.
“I’d see parents and teachers and students,” Frankenfeld said of sitting in the stands. “And they’d keep saying to me, ‘Alex, why aren’t you out there?’ ”