(In full disclosure, I am a former youth technical director of an MLS Academy in addition to being a former high school All-American.)
The Development Academy league, a U18/U16 league comprised of both MLS and non-MLS academy teams, has made great strides funneling top U.S. talent into its system. Coupled with MLS' homegrown player initiative, more kids are getting opportunities to sign professional contracts now than ever before in the history of American soccer.
The basis behind U.S. Soccer's vision: the only way it can compete with the top soccer nations is to invest in youth development, creating an environment where the top youth players play against each other consistently. Kids in other nations are playing at a much higher level at a younger age than the average American. U.S. youth soccer faces extremely different hurdles than the rest of the world -- school system intricacies, geographical challenges and an array of professional sports leagues that dominate media coverage ahead of soccer.
It's impossible to emulate, for example, Barcelona, because the U.S. operates on a different landscape. But times are changing. It is no longer strange to see soccer on SportsCenter's Top 10. The sport has grown into an integral part of American culture.
Development academies have done wonders helping to identify and nurture the accompanying demand for talent. The 10-month schedule is an initiative that would put the talented youth players on par with the curriculum and schedule of those in Europe and South America. In most of those powerhouse nations, the academy system is the focal point for the development of future national teamers.
The 10-month academy structure is necessary for pro and major college soccer prospects to ascend in the international game. Especially those in bad high school soccer situations -- a team that plays a poor level of soccer does not have quality coaching, plays against poor competition, doesn't challenge you to be a better player, etc. That is what academies sell to players and parents, and, quite frankly, it's completely true.
There are ample criticisms of choosing an academy instead of a high school team: What about leadership qualities gained playing high school? What about the camaraderie? How is it beneficial if a high school star sits on the bench for an academy? What about social implications? The toll the academy commitment might make on schoolwork, especially if the player must drive far distances?
Last fall, I faced the realities of the issue while implementing a full-time program as an MLS academy youth technical director. I received a first-hand preview of the advantages and pitfalls that must be resolved before moving to a mandatory 10-month structure. 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.
It is important to note some coaches were tremendous to work with and wanted the best for their players. By working together, we devised plans for certain players to play both high school and academy. Some high school coaches flat out told me, "He is too good to be playing here, you guys should take him and push him to be the best player he can be." Others were reluctant to let go of their best players. They felt threatened by what academies were doing and that their résumés full of district championships and all-state players were being slighted. It amazed me how some of these coaches put program goals above being open to discussing what was best for their players.
The situation that opened my eyes to the shortcomings of the new structure was when one of our players said his private school threatened to rescind his scholarship if he did not play high school soccer. Though the scholarship was not specified as being for soccer, it became evident that was the primary reason he was admitted into the school. Suddenly, this 16-year-old was faced with having to sacrifice his education to pursue his dream. When he decided to transfer to a public high school without a good reputation in order to commit to our program, it simply felt wrong. Soon, others faced the same dilemma and the issue became much bigger than our fall program. Some high school coaches began to hold academic and social implications over players' heads as collateral. In one instance, an athletic director tried to force a mutiny among a player's high school team even after all his teammates voted they were OK with him playing both academy and high school. It was unbelievable.
Now that the 10-month season is mandatory, it will be very interesting to see what happens with these players. U.S. Soccer added a rule allowing academy teams to have a certain number of exemptions for players to remain on their academy team while playing high school, as long as that team fills its roster with a minimum amount of full-time players. Then the question arises, if all the top players will be used as exemptions, then what's the point of expanding to a 10-month season? It would completely defeat the purpose.
But the question remains: What's best for the kid? Some high school coaches want to keep their star players to attain personal goals. Some academy coaches are persuading average players to be roster fillers so they can use exemptions on top players. The system is flawed because it's in its infancy. But more so because academy coaches are in a position where they can take advantage of it. For example, if an academy team does not meet U.S. Soccer's roster requirements, they are no longer a part of the development academy league. This is the equivalent of a bar losing its liquor license. Academies will do anything to comply with U.S. Soccer's rules. The focus then no longer becomes about development, but rather survival.
The bottom line: the top youth soccer prospects in the country should be encouraged to play for academy teams. But, they should not be forced to quit high school soccer in order to do so. It should be an honor, not a mandatory requirement. Each player's situation is different, and adding schoolwork, travel distance, etc., makes the decision more complicated. Precautions must be taken. That said, the academy structure allows top prospects in below-average high schools the option of quality training. That same top youth prospect should also be able to choose whether he wants to play with his high school team instead.
Players, themselves, aren't exempt from responsibility in their own development. The U.S. has produced world-class players like Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel, Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey without an academy structure.
Though the concept is great, the reality is there is still work to do and growing pains ahead. There are too many development academies not up to par with the level of coaching, training and resources they provide, giving some high schools an argument that they can offer better. The standard of most MLS academy teams is very high, and at the very least, has taken a huge step in the right direction. Almost all MLS academy teams are fully funded and offer programs free of cost. However, funding is a major issue that most non-MLS development academies deal with. I've seen prominent non-MLS academies forced to train five teams on one field simultaneously because of funding restrictions on facilities. To help alleviate financial deficiencies, some non-MLS academies charge each player more than $5,000 per year, and that's without the cost of travel.
In cases where a high school offers better training, facilities and resources, the debate moves to the flawed high school soccer schedule. Modern training analyses insist the average training-to-game ratio for teenage players to be at least 3:1. In high school soccer, most of these teams are playing two-to-three games a week, which allows little time for quality training sessions. The impact can be attested in the lack of college or pro scouts attending games. Several top-level college coaches I spoke to said they no longer scout high school games or put much stock in high school awards and stats.
Even though the level of play in high school soccer is behind that of other mainstream sports, what U.S. Soccer is trying to implement is not foreign. Is it unheard of for a basketball prospect to solely play AAU? Athletes making sacrifices in order to maximize the pursuit of their goals is common. Many high schools won't even be affected by the new academy structure. If every academy has an 18-player roster, most schools will lose one or two top players at most, if any at all. High school soccer is not going to die due to this change, despite what some have boldly stated. Some even argue that it will provide opportunities for other players to take lead roles, propelling their development. Regardless, much of the problem seems to arise from two issues: 1) not all development academies have evolved enough to be a clear-cut solution to producing better soccer players. 2) U.S. Soccer made the move mandatory rather than giving kids the option.
Another issue is the need for more quality coaches. Too often, a parent or teacher without soccer experience is asked to coach youth teams from age 6-12. They should be commended for their willingness, but regarding soccer IQ, much is to be desired in crucial years of development. By the time academy or high school coaches get to work with the player, they spend more time trying to break them out of bad habits than on progression. Even at the academy and high school levels, many coaches are not up to the standard U.S. Soccer demands or expects.
The U.S. is headed in the right direction with the development academy program, but I'd like to propose ideas that might maximize the youth development structure.
It should be a priority forevery MLS academy to meet the standard of offering fully funded residency-based programs that offer housing and education along with everything soccer-related. This takes a massive financial commitment, but only then can the U.S. say it's producing a youth development system on par with the top youth programs in the world.
Once in place, I think it should only be mandatory for MLS academy teams to compete in a 10-month season -- and not non-MLS academies. The best prospects should be funneled toward MLS academies. In turn, MLS academies should offer the best facilities, coaches, training and environment. The notion that a player has been identified as a future pro prospect and will be headed to a professional team's residency program will then be completely justifiable on all ends.
Those who would rather play high school or attend a private school could play for a non-MLS academy team instead. This would also prevent non-MLS academy teams from going to drastic measures to remain in the Development Academy league. These non-MLS academy teams can decide whether they want to offer training and exhibitions during the high school season to fulfill a 10-month schedule or stay on the seven-month schedule.
For non-MLS academy players, three months of high school soccer won't deter their development if they are already being coached properly the other nine months of the year. Nevertheless, non-MLS academy teams must continue to be held more accountable for the standard of services they provide, rather than simply using the façade of the academy title as a way to defend costs.
With the new structure, high school soccer will have a ton of value allowing players who have not been selected to development academy teams to become integral members of high school teams. Some of the world's best were not considered pro prospects as teenagers, so it is extremely important that these second-tier players are not neglected.
In essence, every star player who opts to play academy soccer year-round is providing an opportunity for someone else to take a lead role with the high school team. In order for this to happen though, high schools must accept their roles and push top players to be seen by MLS academy teams. With everyone working toward the same goal, MLS and U.S. Soccer's academy initiative can work to coexist with high school soccer to help improve the overall level of soccer in this country. Rather than competing against each other, each side can do its part in helping to produce the next generation of American soccer.