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U.S. Soccer federation is out of bounds on this one; prohibiting high school soccer is wrong

Oct 8, 2012, 3:03 PM EDT

High school soccer

I wrote my first article about the club soccer-high school soccer conflict when I was … in high school. That was in the 80s.

So this debate and discussion is nothing new. Periodically we get the next significant media piece about it; a good one landed in Saturday’s New York Times. Using pointed and poignant examples, it once again examines the issue of elite club soccer creating rules that prohibit young people from playing high school soccer.

Specifically, this story is about the United States Soccer federation’s decision to officially prohibit players in its 80 affiliated academies from participating in high school soccer.

I’ve been consistent all along, and this one really gets me going:

This is soccer in our country at its very worst. This is adults making decisions based on what’s best for the establishment, for the clubs and for the adults, not what’s best for kids. And it stinks.

Since I’ve trampled this ground before, I’ll be brief. High school soccer is cool. Kids like it. It is about community and about sharing athletic experiences with people close in life, and it is part of the American cultural experience. To deny it in the name of developing “world class talent” is getting a lot of wrong fish caught up in the net.

When clubs, with the official sanction of the United States Soccer federation in this case, prohibit high school soccer, things have gone very wrong and they have lost all broader perspective.

Essentially, in the stretch to develop a select few world class players, the deciders are prohibiting thousands of young players from doing something most would enjoy.

What’s possibly worse, by providing official backing for this wrongheaded notion, the federation has empowered clubs beyond the 80 affiliated academy clubs to discourage or prohibit high school soccer. That super stinks, because that represents a more egregious level of club self-interest at work.

If the idea is to produce world class players, as we are told, then this represents ridiculous overreach at very best, and the outright shilling of false hope at worst. Because only the very tip top of this group, even a fairly elite group like this, will ever play professional soccer. And only the very tip top of that group is destined to become a globally recognized star.

This weekend’s story, like some of the others, makes the case that the elite clubs aim is to emulate player development models abroad. Which is fine…if you’re abroad. But we are not. Societies are different, and ours certainly is.

source:  Scholastic sports aren’t valued in other countries the way they are here. My guess: If high school athletics were part of the social fabric in some of these other cultures, they would find ways to incorporate this growth experience within the soccer developmental mechanisms.

Bottom line: They say they want to develop players, and fair enough. But what about developing young people?

This isn’t difficult.  Generally speaking, the next world star looks like the next world star by the time he or she is 14. Maybe earlier. That person probably doesn’t need to play high school soccer.

But for about 98 or 99 percent of this group, this is a disservice. It serves the interest of clubs, helping to make the upper end of youth soccer look and feel more important than it really is in the bigger life picture.

  1. orbmech - Oct 8, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    It is shameful. I’ve read articles about how bad high soccer is and how it is damaging good players (written by people only involved in clubs, by the way) and their reasoning is contorted at best. If US soccer spent a little time and effort in helping high school coaches instead of trying to killing off the high school game, everyone would be better off – especially the kids. And aren’t they the ones who really matter?

  2. whordy - Oct 8, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    I love ya man but here is where I think you, and a lot of establishment American soccer writers are totally wrong. The US federations first job is to put together a program that will benefit the National Teams. Not appeal to high school cliques, or worry about high school drama. If you had to look at one thing holding back young American talent from getting to the next level, it’s the youth structure that has been in place for a long time – ie. school soccer, like high school and college.
    I understand it’s how we’ve always done, and we’re America and rahrahrah, but there are some things that we need to accept are done different in Europe because that’s the way it’s best and maybe we don’t do it the best way. And I understand pretty much everyone involved in soccer at any level was involved in high school or college soccer, which is why this change has caused such an outcry. But if there is one thing that Klinsmann does that I love, it’s to start hard conversations like these and make us really look if we are doing the things the best way.
    From a soccer perspective; I think it’s practically unarguable that high school soccer is worse in every way in producing future professional talent. So any argument for it, like yours, is based on words like “social”, which isn’t the federations concern at all.

    • Steve Davis - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:37 PM

      I respect your argument, but maybe you are missing my point. It’s great to identify the best of the best and direct them away from high school soccer. Omar Gonzalez, for instance, went to the same high school I did. He left after (I think I’m correct here) his sophomore year. And that was absolutely the right call for him, to move on to Bradenton.

      What I’m talking about here is something bigger, a club-driven institutional choice that affects thousands of kids who will never, ever, ever get close to a professional soccer field. And the choice, in my opinion, is really being driven by all the wrong reasons.

      But that’s just my opinion. I read every word of yours, and it is every bit as valid.

    • wfjackson3 - Oct 8, 2012 at 11:32 PM

      I have to disagree with your premise. First, let me point out that using words like “cliques” and “drama” to describe a legitimate activity cheapens your argument and is unnecessary.

      Now, I played club soccer and HS soccer. My HS soccer experience was an integral part of my development as a youth and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was never going to play professionally (lots of speed, poor first touch, and undersized), so why should my club have forced me to do otherwise? If you take the fantastic talents out and even the kids who want to bust ass to get a shot, why does everyone else have to be denigrated with false arguments and miss out on a chance to grow up doing something they enjoy with people that matter to them?

  3. ndnut - Oct 8, 2012 at 3:27 PM

    I am a sophomore in HS looking to be a team manager for our school soccer team next year. Our school just took 2nd in both boys and girls soccer, but only 6 teams compete in school sanctioned soccer so we play other non-sanctioned school teams. All but one of our players plays for a good club who consistently wins. However we have one player who was being recruited by MLS youth academies. He chose to stay here and play HS soccer because he really enjoyed it and he wanted a good education. You have hit the nail on the head with this article!

  4. tylerbetts - Oct 8, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    Damn. That would really kill my hope of having “star striker” replace “starting quarterback” as the heartthrob that high schools girls dream about landing. That was the one missing element in my plan to finally make Soccer the number one sport in the USA, and now it’s dashed.

    (not trying to just be cheeky, here, by the way. This is a stupid decision and something the USSF should back away from ASAP. But to take something that DOES happen within the confines of high school and that a student DOES excel at and make sure they CANNOT do it – regardless of what it is – is a bad decision.)

  5. footballer4ever - Oct 8, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    Wow! USSoccer must be on drugs by wanting to prohibit high school soccer. True, HS soccer is not a well establishe or synchronized establishment which produces enough to national team, but by “killing” it you only will only do more harm than good. Totally out of bounds on this one by USSFederation on how to enhance footballers. Remember, this is America, work with the system, not against it.

    • randomhookup - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:13 PM

      While I’m not sure if you are exaggerating or not, but the move isn’t to kill HS soccer, but to force top players to choose between the two paths. HS soccer will still be around and most kids will be able to play without having to make the choice at all.

      • joeyt360 - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:27 PM

        Right, you’re still talking about 1% of the kids in HS soccer who have this choice.

      • bwana63 - Oct 9, 2012 at 8:46 AM

        A lot less than 1%, I’d venture. The OPs comment is ignorant hyperbole. The notion that the 10 month long Academy system is destined to kill HS soccer is laughable.

        A much bigger threat to HS soccer (and other “secondary” sports) is the extreme budget crunch many, if not most, school districts are facing.

  6. dfstell - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    I think Steve has two basic points here and I agree with both of them. One is that from the standpoint of developing future stars for the national team, only the tiniest percentage of kids need to be in intense club training situations. The other kids might be nice players, but probably won’t be national team stars and can have a more normal teenage life.

    His other point, which I think some of you are missing, is that the clubs have a definite conflict of interest. Clubs aren’t necessarily interested in producing the best talent; clubs are usually just interested in getting the most kids enrolled in the programs to keep the money rolling in to the club. That’s a normal thing for a club to be interested in, but even though US Soccer wants the best training environment for elites the clubs are mostly just interested in the clubs.

    • Steve Davis - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:30 PM

      Yup … what this man said … “Clubs aren’t necessarily interested in producing the best talent; clubs are usually just interested in getting the most kids enrolled in the programs to keep the money rolling in to the club.”

      I don’t think it’s all as insidious as maybe it sounds, it’s just business interest trumping something that should be more important.

      • dfstell - Oct 8, 2012 at 5:08 PM

        Sometimes it is insidious and sometimes not. At it’s most basic, the club wants more kids involved and more kids doing what the club wants them to be doing. Clubs also probably don’t want kids playing basketball or being involved in student government or High IQ Club or having girlfriends/boyfriends.

        And you have some where the club coach just wants to protect his/her job. That’s a reasonable thing that we can all related to and high school soccer doesn’t help him/her keep the job.

        And then there are some jackasses. You know…..people who have ego-trips about what an awesome coach they are or what an incredible concession stand they run or simply like bossing other people around.

      • joeyt360 - Oct 8, 2012 at 6:49 PM

        Travel team soccer in this country has often been born out of shysterism. US Soccer worked with them because it was the most robust system that existed.

        But it isn’t like that cooperation has come without strings attached. With respect to the Development Academy, they’ve got a cadre of ten regional evaluators looking over the shoulder of what the clubs are doing development-wise and scoring them on it. And they will (and have) kicked out clubs for not doing enough.

        Point of that being that it isn’t as simple anymore as pointing out the conflicting incentives, as US Soccer is now in the position to be supplying incentives.

  7. mfishkin - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    The challenge in the states, of course, is that only the MLS academies are free to attend. Pay-for-play is excluding so many worthy players who may develop into future professionals, and who knows, USMNT stars.

    As Jurgen said at the end of WC 2010, “The US is backwards in this respect. The focus on getting an education first is counter to the way the rest of the world does it.”

    For the top 2000 kids per year, who truly want to take a flying leap & a shot at a pro contract, they’ll have to delay higher ed in order to take that shot. And the framework for them to take that leap is coming together.

  8. wesbadia - Oct 8, 2012 at 4:53 PM

    I couldn’t disagree more, Steve.

    Here’s the rub: while it may appeal to the emotions of soccer fans around the country to label USSF’s decision as “anti-community”, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a matter of perspective. You and other pro-high school soccer individuals see it from an establishment perspective… just not the US Soccer establishment. Instead, you see it from an educational establishment perspective. That is, you view educational institutions as a fabric of youth sports, and you have translated that to mean a close community of players, fans, and neighbors joining together to rally behind their local school’s soccer team. Unfortunately, that’s rarely true in America unless you’re in a very large metro area. High school soccer in much of the country is barely stressed and/or funded. My high school denied almost every funding source for our team while I was there over 10 years ago, and they still do today. Sadly, most schools operate similarly. This is not community, by the way. This is the antithesis of it.

    Instead, why not choose to have the other perspective — that of the club? If you choose to view things from this angle, you see that there is even greater support from parents, communities, fans, and technical personnel than high school soccer could ever dream of. THIS is true community: people voluntarily rallying around a common interest and a common good in the name of a common cause. You literally can’t get any closer to what community is.

    All the things you cite as being integral to our current system (“community and about sharing athletic experiences with people close in life, and it is part of the American cultural experience”) are also all provided by the club experience. I touched on “community” above. Sharing athletic experiences is what clubs and academies are all about. Regardless of whether or not the top X% will move onto a professional career from academy soccer, you cannot deny that those organizations are allowing youth to function in a shared athletic experience. Likewise, the cultural experience CAN still happen if people view club/academy soccer as being integral to their community. Again, it’s a matter of changing your perspective.

    Even looking at the numbers, this decision by USSF is not very concerning at all. Compare the number of affiliated clubs (80) with the number of public high schools in the US (over 26,000), as well as the number of private secondaries in the US (nearly 11,000). Eighty affiliated clubs will NOT bite into any amount of high school soccer considering those statistics. When I played in high school, I personally knew of only three or four players (in our league or beyond) that played on a USSF affiliated club. Everyone else playing club ball was on a small local club. All others ONLY played high school or rec soccer. Being involved in coaching for the last 10 years, it’s my perspective that this is still true to a large degree. My point is that there is a very small amount of overlap, if any, that occurs in this situation. Premier club players play premier club ball; high school soccer players play high school ball. Those that fall in the middle aren’t skilled enough to participate in premier ball, and will most likely end up playing on a non-competitive (in a macro sense) club as well as for their school. As far as I’m aware, these players probably won’t be effected by this decision either. (For the record, I was part of this middle group when I played youth soccer.)

    Add to this the fact that so many school districts are struggling to maintain sports programs and you’re left to wonder how much longer high school soccer could stand on its own economically anyway. The simple economic fact is that clubs and academies are set up to provide financially viable and sustainable outlets for youth players to participate in the sport they love. High school soccer is, and has been for quite some time, an also-ran to the club model. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. Public educational programs are ill-equipped to provide a sustainable sporting experience for high schoolers, and the reality is proving this.

    As far as this plays into the “pay to play” model, the relatively low cost for each family to get their child on a club or academy team can pay huge dividends down the road. Even if they choose not to or don’t have the abilities to move on professionally in the sport, more likely than not their club experience has taught them the skills needed to not only win a potential sports scholarship to further their education, but also the skills needed to succeed in college and beyond. High school soccer is not the only outlet to provide these services.

    That 98- or 99% of the group is and will continue to be provided the community, athletic, and cultural experiences that the beautiful game brings. Whether that’s through high school programs, local rec leagues, local non-competitive clubs, or whatever high school sports programs morph into over the next decade or so, US youth will have access to the sport. High school sport is not the sole provider of all these innately beneficial attributes. Just like the government isn’t the sole provider of sustenance, welfare, and opportunities that are in existence in our country (no matter how much you believe in some political schemes…).

    The way of the future for professional soccer in the US is clearly club/academy, not public education. Those remaining hold outs for the “public game” (as you are, Steve) would do best to change their perspective on this issue. You might be very surprised by how well all your concerns about the potential lack of high school soccer are met by the academy model.

    • Steve Davis - Oct 8, 2012 at 5:38 PM

      Some well articulated thoughts from you, as always.

      One nitpick … you make some assumptions about my point of view. I coach club soccer (one team, not affiliated with a larger club, more or less community based); seems like that knowledge might surprise you.

      And … I absolutely am not looking at this from the perspective of the schools. I couldn’t care less about the schools, per se. I am thinking (as best as I can, at least) about kids and what most of them want, and what’s best for the largest number of them. It’s just my opinion, again … but I thought it might be helpful for you to know I DO NOT really have a dog in this fight.

      • wesbadia - Oct 9, 2012 at 8:57 AM

        Fair enough about my assumptions. I apologize. I dislike when others make assumptions about me, so thanks for calling me out on my assuming.

        Thanks for enlightening me a bit about yourself as well. I enjoy getting to know the author of the articles I read :-)

  9. bwana63 - Oct 8, 2012 at 5:24 PM

    Really enjoy your work, but I disagree with much of your column.

    I have a HS freshman (U15) that plays one notch below an MLS Academy team. He plays HS ball, FWIW. I have seen numerous U15, U16 & U18 Academy practices (nationally ranked teams). These kids are on a different plane that the vast majority of HS players (and that is an understatement).

    From a development perspective, playing HS ball (as opposed to Academy ball) simply makes no sense. Furthermore, the Academies have moved to year round participation in the NPL. So, if a Academy kid played HS soccer, he’d be in a giant hole when he returned to his Academy squad.

    That said, I’m not a huge fan of forcing players to opt out of HS ball. Players should have that option. The harsh reality though is that probably 95%+ kids would not play HS ball.

    WRT the money angle, some of the MLS Academies (e.g. Chicago Fire) waive all player fees (parents still responsible for travel expenses, of course). So, no money grab there.

    • Steve Davis - Oct 8, 2012 at 5:41 PM

      “Players should have that option.” … that’s really all I am saying.

      As for the money grab. I appreciate that Chicago and a few others do not charge. That’s fantastic. But SO MANY clubs do. And again, it reaches beyond the 80 affiliated clubs. Plenty do their best to discourage HS participation, and that is highly self-serving.

      • bwana63 - Oct 8, 2012 at 6:01 PM

        I agree 100% that Academy players should have the option.

        And outside of Academy ball, shame on any club for discouraging HS ball. Divisive and greedy.

      • joeyt360 - Oct 8, 2012 at 6:56 PM

        But that glosses over how HS coaches can be self-serving and manipulate their players as well. There was a fantastic article by Alecko Eskandarian about this at SI not too long ago:

        “Though we encouraged all players to take part in the fall program, I chose not to make their participation mandatory to remain in our academy. The feedback was magnificent. Every player was on board to play academy instead of high school soccer. After informing their high school coaches of their decisions, I began receiving phone calls from these coaches. What followed was fascinating and in some cases disturbing.. . .”

        Read on to the next few paragraphs of that, and I think it’ll cast a new color on some of these relationships.

      • wesbadia - Oct 9, 2012 at 9:05 AM

        The thing about “pay to play” is that HS soccer is not exempt. Most have some sort of fundraiser to boost funding. The rest of the budget is made up of tax money that comes from you and me. The short-coming of this taxed system for HS soccer is that it’s competing with not only other school sports but with the educational system for that money.

        You do not have this problem with pay to play clubs. And that’s because the clubs that charge are better equipped to know how much a quality soccer experience costs. Bureaucrats and school board members have no way of calculating this properly. And even if they did, it’d largely result in higher property taxes for everyone in the school district to pay for it all.

        I’m of the belief that most everything in a Prussian public school model (our current system) is under-costed to the taxpayer. In other words, things are actually more expensive than what they say. They are living outside of their means. Clubs that charge will not have this problem unless they’re incompetently run… and if that’s the case, they usually go out of business.

        Again, just another way that the club model out-performs the HS model. Even if the former model becomes the mainstream, there will ALWAYS be opportunities for kids of any socio-economic class to play soccer. You don’t need an organization to run it; you need kids willing to play, and a ball. Period.

  10. futbolhistorian - Oct 9, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    I agree with Steve.

    One interesting tidbit. When I played both HS and Club soccer back in the day (mid 80’s), it was my HS coach putting all kinds of pressure on me to not play club soccer. There were only about two or three of us on the HS team that played club soccer (not coincidentally, we were among the 2 or 3 more skilled players on the team), yet he openly resented our participation in club soccer. Now, almost 30 years later, HS coaches would probably be thrilled to have as many academy/club soccer players on their team as they could, if only those players were allowed to play with their HS.

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