Written by Ulises Cisneros and Jake Simon.
As high school soccer season begins this winter, players are faced with the dilemma of choosing where to play soccer for the next three months.
In the spring and fall, many elite soccer athletes chose to play on a local soccer club, or for boys, on a U.S. Soccer Academy team. Because of high school soccer rules, neither academy players nor club players can play on an outside team while playing for his high school.
In recent years, the popularity of club and academy teams has increased, causing the competitiveness of high school soccer to diminish in many areas in California. Are these elite soccer players to blame for wanting to play against some of the best players in the country and in an environment with a higher chance of scouting?
In 2007, the United Sates Soccer Federation (USSF) introduced the U.S. Soccer Academy, a boys soccer program aimed at developing world class players. Major League Soccer (MLS) club academies, as well as select clubs around the nation, have joined this group of teams hoping to match the advanced playing standard set throughout the rest of the soccer world.
Teams in the academy are required to complete a schedule similar to that of a typical high school team— four days of practice and usually two official games, but for ten months rather than two or three. As Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach of the US Men’s national team stated in an interview, “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… 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.”
Joining an academy team is not as simple as joining a high school team. When trying out for an academy, players face the most elite from their region and beyond. There are significantly more boys trying out for these teams than for a singular high school team. “There have been people from San Francisco, Berkeley, even Salinas that come out to try to earn a spot in the academy,” stated senior Nate Gutierrez of the Juventus Academy.
Even after making the team, a player is not guaranteed a spot if his performance decreases or if another player with more skill comes in. “Joining Academy was very hard. I was first a reserve but then moved up after playing better,”said Gutierrez. Under these conditions, players are encouraged to always play at a high level. Many might say this pressure will poorly affect players, but this pressure only makes players better by making them try their hardest at all times.
Senior Jorge Lopez, another player at Juventus Academy, stated, “I chose academy because the level is more competitive and if there’s no competition how will I improve? I dream of playing college, and college coaches want academy players over high school players because of the level they play in.”
Similar to playing in high school, it is free to play for some academies, such as Juventus Academy. Yet compared to high school, academy allows athletes an enhanced soccer experience. From the staff, to tournaments, academy players receive more opportunities to grow.
Academy teams travel throughout the U.S. playing MLS academies and other clubs. In these matches, players are exposed to hundreds of college coaches. In most high schools, the only exposure a player might get is if he plays in an elite tournament or in the playoffs. Academy teams play in showcase tournaments where the host academy has assigned 400-500 college scouts and 25 professional scouts.
Most importantly, the coaching staff that teaches these players is often more advanced and professional than most high schools can afford. Although some high schools hire great coaches, the budget of a typical high school cannot allow for same talent of as many academy coaches. Specifically, many academies have goalkeeper coaching, something plenty of high school teams do not. This allows for a more personal experience, with directed coaching for athletes.
Many players also participate on a regular club soccer team, and often year-round, which makes playing high school soccer a tough decision if a club soccer team is ambitious and wants to play through the winter.
Ben Simon, a club soccer player for De Anza Force, explained that the difference between the level of play in high school and in club “usually depends on the particular school and coach, but in general club soccer is at a higher level. But some high school and club programs are coached by the same person so some aspects of how they go about the game is very similar. Often the best players play with and against club teams and college coaches do most of their recruiting through club soccer.” Some of these top teams play in well known tournaments including Surf Cup, Dallas Cup, and National Premier League Showcases. These tournaments have intense competition and garner over a hundred college coaches.
High school soccer is not without its positives. Simon explained, “Getting to play with your school friends and representing your school in a positive way is always a pro for high school.”
The institution of high school soccer has many challenges ahead. Only time will tell whether or not it will be able to thrive in the future.