Last spring, I was surprised to see one high school junior among the crowd of returnees at our here’s-what-you-need-to-know-for-next fall meeting. For the past three years, he’d played for a US Soccer Development Academy team.
I asked him why he now wanted to play high school soccer.
“Everyone in the academy is just out for themselves,” he said. “I want a real team, a community.”
He paused. “I travel every weekend. Nobody in school knows who I am. I want to have a real senior year.”
I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s exactly what I told you three years ago, when you were deciding between high school and academy.” But I did not say it. Instead I said, “Those are great reasons. We look forward to seeing you in the fall.”
This year, at least 14 boys in Westport are not playing for Staples High School. Instead, they’ve chosen the academy (or pre-academy) option. They’re playing alongside very good players, and getting solid coaching. For one or two – the legit, high-level college prospects, with aspirations of going even further in soccer – the decision might be the “right” one.
But for the other dozen or so – and their counterparts in high schools across Connecticut– it may not be.
There are the obvious reasons, articulated so well by the young man at last spring’s meeting.
Academy players spend much of their time showing off for college coaches. The travel schedule is brutal: this weekend in Virginia, the next in Boston. In between, there are training sessions that can be a few towns away – or more. Fairfield County schools lose players to academy teams in New Jersey and Long Island. High school students spent hours each week commuting back and forth like, well, commuters.
It’s a huge commitment, and not only in time and energy. The cost – including transportation and hotels – can run close to five figures.
There are also other, less obvious costs.
High school players are role models for their school and community. They walk through the halls, and the streets of their town, wearing high school logowear. Teachers ask about their matches; younger kids flock to games to watch them play, and they’re interviewed by newspapers and local TV.
Their coaches monitor their academic performance – perhaps helping enhance their chance of getting into the college that’s right for them, not the one that looks best on an academy club’s website.
If they’re not number one or two on your academy team, odds are they’re not in a leadership role. If the academy allowed athletes to play high school soccer, those players would become leaders. They’d lift up their teammates, and return to their academy teams after the high school season with new confidence and character.
I also think they’d become more competitive soccer players. As strong as the academy level of play is – and it’s great – no one really plays for an end result. There’s not the intense, match-by-match battle to earn a league playoff spot (against archrivals from neighboring towns). There’s certainly not the fingernail-biting, upset-filled, what-will-happen-next suspense of the four state tournaments.
A former player who left after sophomore year to play academy soccer – and now fills a roster spot on a Division I team – has said that his college teammates who played high school soccer may have a more competitive mindset than their academy counterparts.
I’m not anti-academy. For a select few, it’s a great idea. But a real “academy” program would be much more limited – to the MLS clubs, for example – and would subsidize the full costs of every player. The number of excellent athletes in Connecticut who could play academy soccer, but do not, is high.
High school vs. academy is a battle that does not have to be fought. US Soccer could allow teenagers to play high school soccer for less than three months a year, then play with their academy teams the other nine. That would not only not harm their development; for the reasons outlined above, it would enhance it.
As for the young man who attended our meeting last spring: He’s having a great season. He’s a leader. He’s thriving. And he’s smiling.