There is a nervous air in the hallway the day of a game. The boys can feel the tension as they walk from one classroom to the other waiting for the school bell to ring. Kids give them a slap on the hand and wish them luck. Others say they're going to lose. Girls glance behind their shoulders for a second look at the shiny jersey. It is game day in high school. And the soccer team is in the third round of the state playoffs. The PA comes on and the principal wishes the team luck tonight. Only a few hours to go before the game under the big lights.
Too often, American soccer denigrates the high school game as if it is a poor step sister to the all mighty club team and their elite or select status. They look the other way at the intangibles that a high school season and playoffs teach soccer players. Coaches are regarded in the same manner, less than their club counterparts, as if they don't equally sweat under a hot sun.
But American soccer and college soccer makes a mistake when it blithely considers the experience developed over a season or a career in high school and the playoff system as inferior to a club system played year round.
We all know the criticism. The high school system doesn't develop players. The coaches are bad. The game is flawed. Most of this criticism comes from the very club system that is entrenched across America and exerts great influence on the American game. But cracks have begun to appear in the club system game.
Players are over-coached, they are too rigid, coaches coach by rote, there is too much focus on size, and the system itself is exclusionary especially toward the minority player. Club soccer is suburban soccer like an SUV XL, bulky, boxy, heavy, a vehicle not everyone can afford.
I have coached high school for seven years now with few players playing in the club system. My kids play the cascarita, the pick-up game so popular with Latino players. Lately, the guys have been playing at the local tennis courts, a game of five-on-five on concrete with the chain-link fence as their goal. You can't coach creativity like that.
I have seen it all as a high school coach and experienced things that no club coach has gone through. I deal with eligibility issues in school, discipline issues, grades, ordering equipment for the team, developing the program, working out issues with other sports on campus, all the while trying to improve my coaching to make my program and team better.
Don't tell me the high school coach is inferior. We deal with pressures no club coach ever feels. During the week before our game in the state championship in North Carolina, I had people from the community come up to meet in the grocery store asking if we were going to win with the expectation that we had to. I have had microphones and cameras stuck in my face from local TV stations all in the build up to the finals.
This is one of the most valuable experiences from playing high school soccer. Dealing with the pressure from the community. We do not play in the quiet afternoons at tournaments with three guaranteed games. We play at the football field under the big lights with the newspaper there, with parents, and fans from our town. When we win we win in front of our community. When we lose we lose in front of them. No club player is ever laughed at in the hallways of their school if they choke in their tournament the weekend before.
All that pressure over the course of a season and during a single-elimination round of a playoff system focuses the player. They know they need to step up their game during the playoffs and they know they have to come together to reach the finals. Sounds an awful like a season in college soccer doesn't it?
If the goal is to play college soccer then the college coach who ignores the high school game misses out on seeing the true essence of the player under pressure over a season. Instead of one-stop shopping, a Wal-Mart like concept of selecting players at a club tournament, college coaches need to go a step further and track a prospective player through their high school career. If college football coaches, basketball coaches, and baseball coaches can track prospective high school players so can college soccer coaches.
We need a truce between the club teams and the high school teams.
Most of the club players are playing for their schools anyway. They intrinsically know that playing for their school, for their community, represents something much greater than playing for a club team.
Club coaches and high school coaches can work together to develop a player not only in technical and tactical skills and awareness but also with the intangible experience for playing for something greater than themselves: their community.
This means allowing for the two schedules to work together, being aware of tournament dates that do not conflict with playoff dates, understanding that perhaps practice for one side is practice for the other side, and promoting the value of the high school soccer to college coaches.
College coaches need to be aware if they want to see how a player responds at school, the pressure of the classroom and being an athlete, how they fit into a different system than one they grew up with, whether they can adapt to a new team, can all be found at the player's school.
In addition, the high school coaches need to challenge themselves to coach technical skills as well as tactical. They need to raise the bar to develop a style of game beyond the booming ball and running onto it. Invite the club coach to conduct a clinic at their school. Go see some games or practices for the club team.
It's time for these two systems to come together and develop the player in unison. And it's time for the colleges to open their eyes to the high school game and the things it offers its players.
See you on the field. ...
Paul Cuadros is the author of "A Home on the Field, How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America" and the state championship-winning head coach at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, N.C. For more on the book, go to
http://www.ahomeonthefield.com/ Click HERE to read "The Rise of 'Cascarita' Kids," which appeared in the May issue of Soccer America Magazine.