By Mike Woitalla
U.S. Soccer made it official last Friday that its 78-club Development Academy league will move to a 10-month schedule starting with the 2012-13 season.
More than 3,000 of the nation's elite boys play for Academy teams in U-15/16 and U-17/18 leagues and the schedule change means no high school soccer for them. That's the most controversial aspect of the move the Federation says is necessary to create a better balance between training and games and to “close the performance gap with the top soccer nations.”
U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in the Academy’s press release:
"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. The Development Academy 10-month season is the right formula and provides a good balance between training time and playing competitive matches. 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."
Said USSF Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna, "This schedule puts our elite players in line with kids in their age group internationally, and places the appropriate physical demands at this stage in their development."
The USA, however, is unique to international soccer powers in that it has a strong tradition of scholastic sports participation. The club vs. high school conflict emerged before the Academy league’s arrival in 2007, but it has heated up since one third of the Academy teams moved to the 10-month schedule last year. U.S. Soccer addressed the issue of “banning” kids from high school ball in its “Frequently Asked Questions” about the schedule change:
“Every player has a choice to play high school soccer or in the Development Academy. We believe that for those elite soccer players who are committed to pursuing the goal of reaching the highest levels they can in the sport, making this decision will provide them a big advantage in their development and increase their exposure to top coaches in the United States and from around the world.
“We are talking about a group of players who want to continue at the next level, whether that is professional or college, which is still the destination for a majority of our graduates.”
On whether the quality of high school soccer would be reduced, U.S. Soccer responds with:
“Overall, only 1 percent of all players currently playing high school soccer are involved with the Development Academy. We are only talking about a small percentage of elite players who have the goal of playing soccer at the highest levels. High School soccer will continue to make an important contribution to the soccer landscape in this country.”
On whether Academy coaches are better than high school coaches:
“There are many quality coaches in both the Development Academy and high school teams. The Academy environment allows for more focused and consistent training with less emphasis on games. Academy players and coaches also receive ongoing feedback, instruction and guidance from U.S. Soccer Technical Advisors, who are also the main scouts for the U.S. national team programs.”
U.S. Soccer says the move received “overwhelming support” from its member clubs.
“The key to development, to me, is playing against quality players in practice,” said Crossfire Premier Coaching Director Bernie James in a statement. “I think if you’re with a group of good players who are pushing each other, and you have that for most of the year, then I think it’s bound to be better for development.”
U.S. SOCCER’s Frequently Asked Questions: Academy Starts 10-Month Season in 2012-13 HERE
U.S. SOCCER's Development Academy Quote Sheet: Why Federation leaders (Claudio Reyna, Tony Lepore, Kevin Payne) and Academy club coaching directors (Don Ebert Strikers FC, Calif.; Bernie James, Crossfire Premier, Wash.; Alan Mezger, FC Delco, Pa.: Dave Farrell, Oakwood SC, Conn.; Steve Klein, PA Classics; Kevin Smith, Solar Chelsea, Texas) advocate the 10-month season HERE.
2011-2012 Development Academy Clubs/Conference Alignment Map: HERE.
Joe Lyons' article in St. Louis Today includes responses to the "high school ban" from Missouri high school coaches. ("If you're a top player, a truly elite player, you're going to be found, no matter where you play," says Chaminade coach Mike Gauvain.) Read "U.S. Soccer bans its elite players from high school teams" HERE.
Paul Tenorio of the Washington Post spoke to University of Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, who argues that the Academy can function alongside high school and was initially designed to do just that. Read the article HERE.