United States Soccer made a decision that is forcing young, elite American soccer players to make a hard choice of their own.
Seven months ago U.S. Soccer announced that its Development Academy program teams would extend their seasons from seven to 10 months.
The change is designed to follow development standards in other nations but it forces teenage boys to choose between playing for their high school teams or Academy programs.
Soccer communities across the country are now indulged in the high school vs. Academy debate.
Three of the 80 U.S. Soccer Development Academies are in Colorado.
The Colorado Rush, Real Colorado and Colorado Rapids have development teams in the U17-18 and U15-16 divisions.
Next September U.S. Soccer will create U13-14 development teams. These are regional teams and not all the players are from Colorado.
“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 in the right environment,” U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said when announcing the expanded season. “The Development Academy 10-month season is the right formula and provides a good balance between training time and playing competitive matches.
“This is the model that the best countries around the world use for their programs and I think it makes perfect sense that we do as well.”
This is the sixth year for Development Academies but the first time that boys are not allowed to play high school soccer.
Boys used to be able to play prep soccer and then join their Development teams after the high school season was completed.
There are ways that players can compete in both high school soccer and be on a Development team, but the waiver rules are complicated.
Theresa Echterneyer is the Mountain Vista boys and girls coach as well as a director of coaching for Colorado United and a national staff coach and instructor for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
She isn’t sold that a Development Academy is the best option for an elite player.
“I’ve been coaching for 25 years, both club and high school, so I do understand both worlds,” she said. “I believe it was unnecessary to come down with this mandate saying it’s a 10-month season and we’re going to cover part of your high school season.
“They want it to be more like the European model. That’s the philosophy, which is fine and good except we don’t live in Europe. We happen to live in a country where academics and athletics within the school systems with colleges and high schools are very important part of a student athletes’ development both on and off the pitch.”
“I’m not sure why we did this,” Echtermeyer continued. “I find it interesting that we’re trying to develop a European model when in the United States all our sports do pretty well. The women’s program is winning gold medals, World Cup championships and I’m sure a majority of those girls in the U.S. National team and youth programs played high school soccer.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations, which membership includes the Colorado High School Activities Association, opposes the new 10-month Development season.
The NFHS’s figures for the 2010-11 seasons showed soccer as the fifth most popular sport for boys and girls but a 32-year streak of an increase in boys playing soccer could end when figures are tallied after the 2012-13 season.
Efforts are continuing by the NFHS to get U.S. soccer to reverse its decision on the 10-month season, citing better social, leadership and notoriety benefits in high school rather than the `year-round, sell-yourself-out’ approach of Development soccer.
Rock Canyon coach Sean Henning has seven players who elected to participate on Development teams this fall.
“Each club has two teams,” said Henning of the Development Academy organizations. “There are 20 kids on each of those teams and so with six teams you are taking 120 to 150 kids that are basically not allowed to play high school soccer. There are 80 academies and you are talking about thousands of kids who can’t play high school soccer. The whole purpose of the academy is to develop the elite player for the U.S. National team. Well 3,000 kids are not going to make the U.S. National team.”
Both Henning and Echtermeyer both mentioned Missy Franklin as an example that high school competition isn’t a hindrance.
Franklin, who swims for Regis Jesuit High School, won five medals, four of which were gold, for the United States at the London Olympics.
“She was recruited to go other places but she said no,” said Echtermeyer. “Everyone kept telling her to move and go work with better coaches in a year-round environment or otherwise you’ll never make your goals. She kind of proved everybody wrong.”
Both sides have good arguments in this debate.
“I feel that what U.S. Soccer has done really divides the soccer community,” said Echtermeyer. “I honestly don’t think it’s what best for the kids. I have three boys not playing for me this year. I know how much they miss not playing for their school.
“This is the first year out and one thing U.S. Soccer will do is evaluate what is working and what’s not working. I think it is a ridiculous argument and excuse to say the men’s national team program cannot develop players to win at the international level just because boys are playing high school soccer for three months for only three or four years. These kids have been playing since age five with their clubs. Maybe U.S. Soccer should look at themselves and see what they might be doing wrong with their ID programs, coaching staffs, training programs and men’s youth and national teams.”
“If you are a good player and you go to your high school team and you are kind of a standout, it teaches you to play with players who are not on the same level, it teaches you how to be a leader,” he said.
“There are a lot of psychological and mental pieces that it does give an advantage to you if you do play in high school. It teaches pride in playing for your community, school and peers.”