A chasm has developed in the youth soccer community, one that will force the top high school-age boys’ players nationwide to choose between playing for their school or sticking with a club team during the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s new 10-month season, which begins in September.
Created in 2007, the academy is a partnership between U.S. soccer and 78 of the top youth clubs in the country, including the Sporting Kansas City Juniors, with the stated aim of developing the next generation of players for the U.S. men’s national team.
Until Feb. 10, when the academy formally announced its new mandate, players outside of Texas and California, which moved to the 10-month season last fall, were free to play high school soccer from mid-August through October and then return to Sporting KC Juniors or another of the academy’s clubs.
That will no longer be the case for the 2012-13 season.
“If we want our players to someday compete against the best in the world, it is critical for their development that they train and play as much as possible and in the right environment,” U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in the academy’s release announcing the change.
Klinsmann lauded the new 10-month season, which is modeled after the European training schedule.
“This is the model that the best countries around the world use for their programs,” he said, “and I think it makes perfect sense that we do, as well.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with Klinsmann’s assessment or the decision to force the elite players to choose between high school soccer and the academy clubs.
“We are a unique culture and the whole concept of high school soccer and the concept of high school in general is very different here,” said St. James Academy coach Rick Enna, whose son Steven played for the Thunder as well as Sporting KC’s under-16 academy team last fall. “It’s a very special part of a young person’s development. I’m not convinced taking that away from a young player is the best thing.”
Jon Parry, who is Sporting KC Juniors director of coaching and doubles as the under-16 head coach, understands the frustration expressed by his colleagues at the high school level. He insists the decision isn’t a jab aimed at high school coaches, but rather a necessary step in raising the level of U.S. soccer worldwide.
“I have personal experience being in Holland in December, and we had access to Ajax for four days and got to see the youth training taking place,” Parry said. “I can tell you this, from U-9 to U-14 we’re right there with them, but the older age groups are more technically sound and outpace the kids over here. It’s about the hours training and training in same environment.”
Academy clubs will deemphasize competition and focus instead on intensive training, drilling technical skills and then playing perhaps one game — against the highest quality competition available — on weekends. Many club teams currently play up to a half-dozen games during a competition weekend.
“Having that intensive training three or four days a week is definitely going to be a lot higher level soccer than high school soccer would be,” said Jon Kempin, who was a high school All-American and state champion at Blue Valley North before signing with Sporting KC. “I think you’re going to see a lot more homegrown players and a lot more professional players come out of the U.S.”
Again, some question whether the new 10-month training regimen will have the desired effect.
“I understand that the U.S. wants to be the best at everything, but I don’t think the reason the national team hasn’t flourished is because our kids are playing high school sports,” Pendleton said. “Our best athletes in America still aren’t migrating to soccer. We’re not getting the LeBron James-type guys growing up wanting to participate in soccer.”
Additionally, the academy can’t replicate the atmosphere and provide all the benefits that high school soccer does.
“My concern is that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be only about soccer,” BV Southwest coach Jason Pendleton said. “At the high school level, the focus isn’t just on soccer but also the development as a student-athlete and human being. That’s where the kids will be missing out.”
Nobody denies there is some merit to that argument — least of all, the players who have played both high school soccer and with elite clubs.
“Socially, there is nothing like playing a sport with the guys you go to school with,” said former Oak Park soccer player Kevin Ellis, another of Sporting KC’s homegrown player. “There is a difference because, as my high school coach put it, he was a teacher first and then a soccer coach.”
Each player will have decide for himself what his soccer ambitions are.
“The environment is different and club players will miss out on that, but if your goal is to play professional soccer that is something you’ll have to sacrifice,” Kempin said.
At this point, however, the issue seems far from black and white for players like Steven Enna, one of 15 players to receive All-Metro honors from The Star last fall who also plays for the Sporting KC Juniors.
“I haven’t figured what I am going to do,” he said. “It’s a hard situation for me and I was angry at first, because I had been able to play for my dad before and now I am going to have to choose. I love Sporting to death, but I also love playing for my dad and my school.”