'Not every kid wants to play high school' (Q&A Leigh Cowlishaw, Richmond Kickers)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

The Richmond Kickers have announced they will be covering the costs of players on their U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams. We spoke with Leigh Cowlishaw, the Central Virginia club's Director of Soccer, about the impact he expects from the move – and the Academy’s new 10-month season, which keeps its players out of high school ball.

SOCCER AMERICA: Other than the Major League Soccer programs in the 78-club U.S. Development Academy, only a handful of clubs don’t charge their players. How are the Richmond Kickers able to pull it off?

It’s a mix of sponsorships and motivated donors who wanted to see this happen.

SA: So it’s not a case of the club’s other players’ fees subsidizing the Academy teams?

It is not. This is very much a self-sufficient program, so no funds from any of our other programs are directed toward this initiative. That was very important to our club. We did not want to see that. That would be against what we believe in.

SA: What impact do you expect from making your Academy teams cost-free?

One would hope there’s an incentive now for players to join the club. It’s certainly a driving force and a reward of a significant dollar value for players who are able to be part of the Academy team.

Four-year play in the Academy -- you’re probably looking at a $20,000 scholarship.

SA: How important is solving the pay-to-play state of American soccer to the nation producing more great players? One can argue that although the USA is producing more “good” players than ever, its rate of producing truly exceptional players hasn’t increased substantially over the decades …

We continue to average down because of all the programs, because of all the leagues, because of all the organizations, because of all the clubs that continue to promote that they offer a high level of soccer development. So the player pool is so spread out. The market is totally scattered and fragmented.

I would much prefer to get to the stage where the best players in a region are all together. And that’s one of the reasons we wanted to this [cost-free].

We know that if we pool the players of Academy-level together from a 50-, 60-mile radius, you’ve got a totally different training environment, a totally different playing environment, and you’ve got players competing week-in and week-out just to get in the starting lineup.

We’ve had this explosion of club development and player development, but the actual environment of a player having to fight to be on a certain level team just doesn’t exist.

SA: The big news in youth soccer is that the U.S. Academy league is moving to a 10-month season. What’s a specific benefit for your club’s players?

The 10-month season will allow our players to develop even more because now we’ll have the ability to train those players with the professional team -- as clubs around the world can. It will be common moving forward for a 16-year-old kid, who has the ability and temperament, to train with our pro team now and then.

[Editor’s Note: The Richmond Kickers, who have 8,000 youth players under their umbrella, also field a USL PRO team of which Cowlishaw serves as head coach.]

SA: What’s been the reaction of your club’s Academy players on the prospect of opting out of high school ball?

We polled our players and 70 percent were all-in to do Academy play right now. And that’s the existing player pool.

To say every kid wants to play high school soccer would be wrong.

But we also recognize there are some fantastic coaches and great teams in high school soccer and high school soccer is not going to go anywhere. High school soccer will continue forever. …

We also recognize this is going to be a generational thing. Not everyone is going to buy into it. Juniors and seniors who have grown up with high school may see it as the No. 1 priority. We believe, as U.S. Soccer believes, that over the years the best players are going to see a different path and gravitate to the Academy program.

SA: What about the argument that Academy players will miss out on the joy of representing their school community, and playing in front of crowds?

I like that point because you want to replicate that environment where there’s a lot of noise and atmosphere. That helps player development. I totally agree that’s one of the big benefits of high school ball. It’s certainly harder to replicate that at the Academy level, but that may change over the years as the culture changes.

The one thing that I will say: In our area, our high school soccer fields are the size of football fields and it’s very difficult to play the type of soccer U.S. Soccer is demanding. It’s not conducive to attractive, possession-style soccer.

18 comments about "'Not every kid wants to play high school' (Q&A Leigh Cowlishaw, Richmond Kickers)".
  1. James Denson, February 22, 2012 at 11:04 a.m.

    Of Course the players are saying they don't want to play HS ball. They have been fed propaganda by the DA for 7 months with no input from their HS Coach. And they are told this is their best shot at being on the national team and play professionally. What players doesn't want to believe that.
    Are there no positve benefits to the High School Athletic culture?

  2. Christine Robinson, February 22, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.

    Maybe not EVERYone WANTS to play HS... but EVERYone should have the option. There are endless benefits to high school ball. Their HS season should be protected, with optional games for those who do not wish to participate. A dialogue between the Academy coaches and High School coaches needs to take place.

  3. Kraig Richard, February 22, 2012 at 12:59 p.m.

    Many high schools are too large and should be fielding more than one team. The business of creating scholarship potentials for such a small part of the school population seems misguided. The business of school sports should be something else. When towns joined and formed union school districts with big schools, it cut out a lot (a majority) of role model generating positions. Schools really need to use their sports a lot more wisely then they do now. We are too fat and too criminal. That’s what high school sports should be about fixing. Serious soccer should be taught by serious coaches who have a license, in settings not a burden to taxpayers. Bad habits from part time coaches are hard to fix. Club Rats should stay club rats and HS should perhaps be a showcase for clubs to recruit from. Superstars generally draw a lot of painful fouls in an environment with HS'ers who haven’t been taught by a licensed coach. Then going into dump and run style ball makes no sense for player development. Every club should be carrying a few scholarships or else they are not a football club, and instead only some organization. If a dialogue between the Academy coaches and High School coaches needs to take place its got to be the HS asking for players and the Club Coach making sure training and tactics are permissable. Though I would rather not see our kid out there on a HS field, he probably will,

  4. John Roode, February 22, 2012 at 7:38 p.m.

    The point at the end about playing in front of crowds at HS games being a plus is baloney. I attended several Real Madrid and Ajax games at all age levels while I was there, including a reserve team game. I had been invited by a couple of youth coaches I knew from each club... and was at Real Madrid for a week and Ajax for 2 weeks. The reserve team game had a couple hundred in the "crowd". The youth team "crowds" were made up of primarily parents and friends of parents. It's no different than here. Doesn't seem to hamper their development that they don't have "crowds". This whole discussion really is pretty silly. Give the kids what they want. If they want to play HS, then let 'em play. If they want to play "Academy" then let 'em play "Academy". What's the big deal?

  5. Gak Foodsource, February 22, 2012 at 11:27 p.m.

    I am excited to hear about teams like the Kickers making positive contributions to the pay-to-play dilemma. But I disagree with Leigh on comments about the necessity of bringing talented players together and the size of pitch inhibiting good soccer. Both just feel like excuses for the fact that we are graduating too many kids to higher levels of soccer who don't have the technical skills to survive. While both facilities and competition obviously matter, I'd rather see clubs like the kickers worrying about the things that are within their power to control.The primary objective should be making sure this year's u-12's are significantly better with the ball than last year's, and that next year's will be better than this years. It is a simple, and important, goal. If they can't play with a ball in tight space, then the extra 30 yards on a bigger pitch are wasted - in fact they only mask what the players can't do in a smaller space. And unfortunately, if players can't completely control the ball at will, the tactical advancements gained through higher competition are severely limited.

  6. Tom Crossett, February 22, 2012 at 11:55 p.m.

    Can we all agree that every kid deserves the option to consider playing high school soccer? Second, my god, aren't these paid coaches and trainers good enough to do the work in 8 months, now they need 10? Can US Soccer solve the real problem, which seems to be ignored, that is get the best athletes to play soccer, not basketball or football. Plus riddle me this, why will private school soccer players be able to play high school soccer and not public school kids? Sounds like a law suit! Solve the problem US Soccer, maybe you can hire another non-American to tell you this.

  7. michael cassady, February 23, 2012 at 7:59 a.m.

    Kudos to Richmond for attempting to address the expense issue.Concerned how you address driving in cars 4 nights a week 50,60 miles one way after school to practice? Also,what happens after we go to NCAA control and 4 month College Soccer? How is that different than highschool ?Technical,tight ballcontrol response from Gak Foodsource was great.

  8. Robert Robertson, February 23, 2012 at 8:04 a.m.

    While I support the financing of players - the real problem is the exclusion of working class kids from the sport by monetary obstacles. Both in boys and especially the girls side the subsidy program is actually a 'welfare program' for the wealthy since working class kids basically never reach the upper levels of the sport. Paying for training, travel, etc. become more and more prohibitive. While some clubs have scholarship programs - in general they are extremely tokenistic. My comments are based on my experience in NJ, not on any personal knowledge of the Richmond Club.

  9. g s, February 23, 2012 at 8:26 a.m.

    I have a hard time reading this and wondering if the Academy player parents really understand what Leigh means by FREE? The biggest cost for a club player is not fees, it's travel, uniforms, more travel. School soccer covers all of that. It gives the players the chance to represent their school and friends instead of a for-profit club looking to snake the best players and turn them against school ball. What's next? No college (like in the European system?) Give millions of kids an unachievable dream, then when it doesn't work out, shove them out in the world with no job skills. This idea, while having good points, also has a real predatory stench to it.

  10. George Hoyt, February 23, 2012 at 9:59 a.m.

    It's true that club registration fees are really a minimal part to the cost of these programs. Hotels, travel, food on the road are all prohibitive factors to equal access for any talented player. Equipment is often subsidized, but there are still many obstacles. I'm not sure what Richmond is doing (a fabulous commitment) or what US soccer has suggested are solutions. If we are talking about enabling the "disadvantaged" player to enter the fold of the development program- there are more significant obstacles than money. It's no easy nut to crack and as always, all sides to the argument have valid points.
    As for smaller fields being detrimental, have you seen playing surfaces in Brazil, Argentina, and in many other countries producing the best talent. It can't last forever, but everything can be used toward development.

  11. Amos Annan, February 23, 2012 at 10:36 a.m.

    nonsense - its all about the money and trying to control the best players to make money

  12. George Hoyt, February 23, 2012 at 11:03 a.m.

    I agree about the whole thing coming down to money- buts its more than fees. For clubs, it comes to economics of course. As idealistic as any club may be, they need to see profit in order to survive- even if it means they continue to use the money to help player's realize a dream. The challenge is not letting profit be king. There's millions of dollars at stake so it takes a big commitment. There will always be the temptation toward abuse. That's why we have regulations to keep aborace

  13. George Hoyt, February 23, 2012 at 11:05 a.m.

    Sorry hit the wrong button. I meant to say "keep avorace in check."

  14. Mark N, February 23, 2012 at 11:33 a.m.

    Money is always a factor, and yes let the kids choose. BUT while Leigh says "there are some fantastic coaches and great teams in high school soccer" he has enough PR sense not to say another true statement: there are a lot of poor coaches and teams in HS as well. Plenty of top players will be disappointed overall in their school soccer experience for that one reason (and Leigh's 70% poll of current HS-age players helps back that up). US Soccer is trying to accomplish one thing here: develop a deep, talented player pool. From their perspective, high school ball represents a missed opportunity for the individual quality players that regress during the HS season - big downside, and very little upside (for those players).

  15. Mark N, February 23, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.

    @michael cassady - While D1 soccer has its weaknesses, you can't put it in the same universe as most HS programs. "After academy" the proverbial top player will have much more freedom to choose a NCAA program where he will continue to develop, whereas in high school, his opportunity to truly develop (as a player) within a high school program depends primarily on where his family lives. In general, HS soccer is a liability to the US Soccer player pool, and NCAA is a relative strength.

  16. michael cassady, February 24, 2012 at 7:01 a.m.

    @mark n- the NCAA,who does not know who FIFA is,whose clock counts down,where a horn blows at game end...a great organization to control Prime years development in football ?? D1,D2,D3 ,,,many many to most teams cannot even put 3 passes together,booting balls forward blindly,Is bigger,stringer,faster the answer? maybe coaches need academy?don't think expensive "academy's in the car" are good answer ...all for development..close to home,with real games,real fans, real rivalries,, the game.a game with brains.

  17. Oz LatinAmerican, February 24, 2012 at 6:27 p.m.

    To play competitive soccer in USA cost a lot of money. For a 10 game season for a high school age, the cost is $12,000 per team!By the time the season ends it will cost a family and average $,2000 including tournaments,travel,food, etc. In other countries this is not the case, at this age they already have a contract, or all their expenses paid by the clubs where they play for; professional clubs. Here where else the kids will try to play professionally besides the MLS? And even then the MLS don't offer much.

  18. Oz LatinAmerican, February 24, 2012 at 7:08 p.m.

    I'll take that back, is only 8 games in a season! can you believe that!

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