By Mike Woitalla
Martin Jacobson is likely the most renowned high school soccer coach in the USA as his success with inner-city New York kids, at a school dubbed "Horror High" by the tabloids, has been well-documented by media outlets, including CBS's "60 Minutes."
After serving as a guidance counselor at Manhattan’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School for a decade, Jacobson took charge of the team’s winless soccer team in the mid-1990s and began by finding talent among students in ESL (English as a Second Language) and bilingual classes.
At the West Side school that has no soccer field of its own, Jacobson guided the MLK Knights to the PSAL Class A title in 1996 and last year celebrated his 13th championship in 17 seasons. That success has largely come with at-risk inner-city kids, some of whom Jacobson has found foster parents and group homes for, and steered away from gangs and drugs. Jacobson even enlists lawyers to assist players with immigration issues.
This fall, Jacobson faces a new challenge: the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s ban on high school ball, which affects up to eight players in his squad. Understandably, Jacobson is upset that clubs to which he recommended players now demand that they forgo playing for the Knights.
“When the Academy started [in 2007], I said, ‘Go play. I encourage you. You go play for the best club if you can,’” says Jacobson, who has discovered plenty of talent with his summer pickup soccer program, including Bakary Soumare, a 2009 MLS All-Star. “I would call the coaches up to recommend players. … You need a cooperative attitude, a cooperative effort to identify players.”
But this year, the Academy bosses decided that high school soccer impeded players’ development.
“I don’t think a 10-week high-school season was killing the Academy program,” he says. “They’re still playing. And they’re kids. And they’re still socializing.”
While Jacobson laments the prospect of losing top players who can help him win titles, he’s particularly concerned about the kids who may not stay on the educational track if they’re not inspired by staying eligible for high school play.
“I work 24/7 helping these kids,” he says. “What are the Academies going to do in terms of meeting social needs? Do they care about the kids' education? Are they going to check their grades?
“We’ve saved lives that way. I have the highest graduation rate in the city for a non-specialized school. In the last few years, I have graduated every single kid who’s played for me. Citywide they graduate 52 percent.”
Jacobson empathizes with the Federation’s quest to improve the quality of American soccer but not what he sees as an uncooperative approach.
“I know they want to model things after Europe,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for Bob Montgomery [the Red Bulls Academy Director], and for MLS clubs wanting to develop talent. And I could respect the approach if it were 19 MLS clubs, setting up residency programs. If they want to take one of my kids in residency, you have to let them go.
“If the kid’s got a chance to go pro, I can live with that if it’s really his choice. I can understand supporting U.S. Soccer on 19 MLS Academies -- but I can’t give U.S. Soccer blanket support for some 80 clubs keeping kids out of high school soccer.”
A notion that Jacobson can’t help but take as an insult is the implication that high school coaches aren’t good enough to train elite talent.
“Do they really think their club coaches are the best? Come on,” Jacobson says. “Do they have a secret formula they don’t tell me or any other high school coaches about?
“Have they done a study on high school coaches? I think the majority of high school coaches are excellent. And the ones who aren’t are not coaching excellent kids, in general. I think we work really hard for the kids. We meet needs the club coaches don’t provide.”