Interview by Mike Woitalla
Lorne Donaldson is the Executive Director of Coaching of Real Colorado, which has nearly 5,000 players and competes in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and ENCL. We spoke with Donaldson about the high school vs. club debate in Part 1 of our interview.
SOCCER AMERICA: Real Colorado has been part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy since its founding in 2007. What’s your assessment of the Academy?
LORNE DONALDSON: It’s been good for the kids. It’s been good for the players. But I want to qualify that. I don’t think every player fits this mold. It takes a special player to really do it.
What happens now because of the 10-month season and the high school [ban] -- I think it will change that mold again.
My roster next season I can tell already won’t be as big. I know some kids will play high school. It’s going to be a telling time for a lot of these kids. I don’t think every kid should play Academy. I think some kids are better off in high school.
SA: Do you believe kids who opt to play high school will still be on track for the higher levels?
LORNE DONALDSON: If we’re talking about the national team stuff, I think if you’re a player of that level, you have to play in the Academy. If you’re talking about "higher level" being college, it depends on what level of college.
The top-notch Division I schools, I think those coaches will demand that you actually play at the Academy level. The Academy prepares you better for the college. I’ve watched college games over the last few years and it’s become a lot better game. The competition at the Academy prepares you better.
SA: What do you think of the the high school vs. club debate since U.S. Soccer announced the 10-month Academy season?
LORNE DONALDSON: It’s tough. I have mixed reactions. I go to watch the high school games and watch these guys in their social setting with their high schools. I think it helps them to grow a bit. A kid who excels in high school, they became the big man on campus, as they say, and get their name in the paper, etc., etc. I think there’s some good in that.
SA: So why can’t the Academy and high school ball complement each other?
LORNE DONALDSON: If all the high schools were on the same season, I think we could work it out. But some high schools play spring, some play fall, and so it’s a very tough schedule to work out -- and the weather is a big factor.
The Federation had to make a decision and say, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do to get players prepared.”
SA: How have your players reacted to having to choose between Academy and high school?
LORNE DONALDSON: It hasn’t hit them yet. We’re just moving into that stage and they’ll have to make a choice in July when we tryouts. … It’s going to be tough. ... I just got an e-mail from the mother of a player whose son has a chance to be captain of his high school team and she wants to talk about high school and Academy. It's a tough choice to make.
SA: On the girls side, there's U.S. Club Soccer’s ECNL (Elite Clubs National League), which was founded in 2009. Do you think U.S. Soccer should launch an equivalent of the Academy on the girls side?
LORNE DONALDSON: I think ECNL is fine. I think the ECNL rules are fine. All the national team girls are out there. Most of the best clubs, 95 percent of the best clubs, are playing ECNL.
The events are getting better. I don’t think they [U.S. Soccer] should take it over, but there should be still a little more money they can put in. They should have somebody in the front office they should pay to help run it.
SA: How do ECNL costs compare to the Academy’s?
LORNE DONALDSON: It can be even more expensive because in the Academy you have two teams but in the ECNL you have five teams – from U-14 to U-18. There’s a lot of expenses.
But I can tell you one thing. They enjoy it. The good thing the girls have going for them is they still play high school.
We can control our ECNL schedule so we don’t play during high school season. Some other clubs might choose to play in high school season but we stay away from it. It makes life easier.
SA: Has Academy play increased the costs?
LORNE DONALDSON: The Academy has driven the cost up for the players. It’s also driven the costs up for the clubs. Our location requires a lot of travel.
And the Academy youth clubs are competing with the MLS clubs, whose Academy teams are free. We have to figure out how to raise money.
A lot of the better Academy players can't afford the costs and are scholarship players. So we gotta find a way to scholarship players. It’s not just us. It’s a lot of clubs. And if there’s an MLS team close to you, most of them will flock to the MLS club because it’s free.
(Look for Part 2 of this interview, in which Lorne Donaldson proposes solutions to creating opportunities for low-income children and other ways to improve player development.)