High school ban hits hard in Manhattan

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.”

25 comments about "High school ban hits hard in Manhattan".
  1. Gak Foodsource, August 3, 2012 at 11:35 p.m.

    Great insight from Martin Jacobson. I thought this quote was fantastic: "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.” I support US soccer's efforts to improve our model, but like Martin, not unilaterally. There are lots and lots of kids that will be pushed into the watchful eyes of pay-to-play coaches, when so few of them have the chance to make a living playing soccer. I agree completely with Martin when he says this would be a lot easier to get behind if academies were stepping up and offering scholarships and residencies - at least that way the kids know what choice they are making, and are provided training, room, and board along the way. a kid who joins an academy team because he is convinced he will be shunned if he plays High school(which he will) still has to pay money for that opportunity. There is NO single solution to US development that leaves everyone happy, but please tell me US soccer has more tricks up its sleeves to address pay-to-play. and please tell me there is something in the works that demonstrates the USSF even comprehends the challenges of being Poor and talented at soccer in the US?

  2. Stephen Peck, August 4, 2012 at 1:02 a.m.

    When well respected High School coaches like Jacobson speak out like this, parents and players will stop and think. Questions I posed 18 months ago are now coming out across the country. How will US soccer and the developmental academies respond? Without answers will they even try? Begs the question, where was the forethought, Europe even educates their academy players residentially. The system is antiquated to try and separate soccer and school so ultimately it's really about the money the clubs are making. Coaches are suppose to be mentors trying to help young people as much as they can to navigate the pitfalls of life. When you stop caring about the person and only focus on the player you cannot call yourself a coach.

  3. Jogo Bonito, August 4, 2012 at 9:04 a.m.

    I'm an Academy coach and I hate this nonsense. I normally do not have much involvement in the Fall because I coach in college as well, but I was hoping the Academies would get together and tell US soccer that this wrong. Unfortunately, people are scared to protest things these days. I'm not interested in returning after the college season.

    Clearly HS soccer is generally a less sophisticated game. Even the very good teams have to play against some players that could never step foot on an academy field. But we're talking about 10-weeks of HS soccer service these players would at of the Academy. Ten weeks of vital socialization. Ten weeks of being a local HS soccer hero. Ten weeks of being a leader and in many cases a "teacher" to less experienced teammates. Ten weeks of possibly gaining valuable life lessons from some of the greatest teachers I know - HS coaches.
    Sure some HS coaches are awful and some may be awful people, but the majority I meet are quality. Which brings me to the Academy coaches. Many I meet there (remember I'm one of them) are good people, but I will guess that the MAJORITY I see have little interest or knowledge of the value of the 10-week HS season. Many academy coaches are overpaid egomaniacs that have somehow been able to convince the people that they're soccer experts through some seemingly impressive connection to higher level soccer or useless badge or coaching license. So many of these egomaniacs will drop your son from the team in a heartbeat. Many have zero interest in nurturing a young athlete. Many are collectors of talented players that constantly discard players that they deem useless and never really tell them why. I firmly believe that Academy players will not be "slowed" or "deterred" by 10 weeks of HS soccer. In fact, I believe the majority will gain vital developmental socialization aspects that will help them a hell of a lot more that 10 weeks of working on "keeping shape" with the typical USDA club.

  4. Walt Pericciuoli, August 4, 2012 at 9:16 a.m.

    I could not agree more. The Academy programs for all the non MLS clubs are nothing more than a cash cow to provide a living for the "professional" trainers they hire or import.With that said, I also think the MLS clubs are not providing support and options for the players who will not turn pro,which will be the majority of them. Without having detailed knowledge of all the academy programs,I ask does the US federation have any oversight?Are there any guidelines and or operational procedures that must be adhered to that includes general welfare of the individual players not related to their soccer potential?

  5. Walt Pericciuoli, August 4, 2012 at 9:19 a.m.

    Well said Jogo, I didn't see your post before I wrote mine.Thank you for speaking out.

  6. Jack paul, August 4, 2012 at 9:32 a.m.

    It seems Socccer in the US is still in its frontier stage. Agree, why pull a child from the enjoyment to being part of his high school. Tell the NBA, NFL that a player cannot play high school or college ball. If the clubs want to mimic euro teams .then what about the pay structure.

    I think we should follow our own US culture. Why not follow our successful NBA, NFL culture that scouts pick players from colleges, etc. How many players are on scholarships even for high school, academic and/or sports. So should the High Schools not give scholarships afterall the club says can't play. I think the High School and College coaches should form a committee and discuss this with these "clubs".

  7. Bill Anderson, August 4, 2012 at 10:09 a.m.

    Great article and insight from Martin Jacobson. This was my argument from the very start of the conversation. I have zero, zilch, nada problem with LA Galaxy Academy or Houston Dynamo Academy pulling players for professional training. If they pay the freight, they call the shots. I have an insurmountable problem with your local rec program hanging out an academy shingle above their door and telling players they can't play for their school. Their is no "Academy" for Lonestars Soccer Club because there is no professional team for those players to graduate to. It is all a scam (sorry Lonestars, your just my local example).

  8. Bill Anderson, August 4, 2012 at 10:15 a.m.

    My other GIANT problem is that Jurgen Klinsmann stated that he wanted to find players who were not being identified and to develop the diamonds in the rough that were unable to enjoy the "pay for play" model of club soccer. High School soccer (in my opinion) is the perfect vehicle to accomplish those two married mandates of Der Kaiser. The US Soccer Academy mandate seems to be diametrically opposed to the stated goal of the man in charge of the National Team.

  9. Kevin Sims, August 4, 2012 at 10:18 a.m.

    Amen, brothers! There are plenty of high school coaches out there these days that are known to be excellent club coaches as well. My coaching experience and my coaching licenses and my passion for the game and young people serve kids of various levels in the game ... whatever expertise I may have is put to the best use I can imagine whether working with elite players (my fair share) or novice players (my fair share). If the program were truly targeting the elite players with legitimate chances to play professionally and help America realize its soccer dream of world contender, I would grant my blessings without hesitation. To lead on so many players and families who have no shot at the pot of gold and to compromise the total development of the child in the process is unethical and deceitful. I know many families are in considerable distress over the situation ... and could share several stories of outright abusive and underhanded approaches from Academy folks. Any coaching or teaching of youth in any endeavor must begin and end with this question: what is best for the long-term development of the child? This child-centered approach trumps other considerations. I fear the Academy is exploiting many to highlight the few ... is blinded by the monetary interests involved ... is guilty of hubris ... at the cost of young people who love the game.

  10. Kevin Sims, August 4, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.

    Check out the NSCAA page dedicated to this controversy @

  11. Lynn Berling-manuel, August 4, 2012 at 10:28 a.m.

    Academic soccer -- high school and college -- is also a level of the game that local media understands. High school sports get unprecedented coverage because it is community-based and community supported. Our sport needs that media depth. Soccer fans get excellent coverage from lots of sources. But to fully integrate soccer into the U.S., you need that community level, too.

  12. John Cassidy, August 4, 2012 at 10:57 a.m.

    The ten month Academy program staff are paid full time salaries.
    The high school ban keeps the revenue source in place.
    The decision is an economic one.

  13. Karen Bush, August 4, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.

    Any time you put in place an absolute that limits opportunities, you limit growth. There are thousands of kids and thousands of families out there who are just getting started in the game. A vast majority know nothing of academies -- they're just looking for their youngsters to get out and have fun. By banning high school play, US Soccer will find fewer and fewer people willing to send their kids to the academies. That will not help the national program in the long run.

  14. Carl Walther, August 4, 2012 at 12:39 p.m.

    The US Academy program "has no clothes," and the people in charge are too arrogant to listen.

  15. Scott Nelson, August 4, 2012 at 2:28 p.m.

    The issue of what kind of grade check the Academies put their players through is a legitimate one. In my area there have been a lot of rumors floating around about Academy players who wouldn't be HS elibible anyway because of their grades. Despite the fact that these are elite players, the vast majority of them are STILL not going to the pros, which means that college is going to remain the next best opportunity for them, which means they need good grades, too. As far as Jacobs' team is concerned, I had read that the Academy system was willing to make an exception for those players who were on scholarship at private schools. Presumably that distinction is being made because it is in the best academic interest of those kids, and it could easily be argued that this is a similar situation. Soccer may well be the hook that keeps many of those kids in school.

  16. James Madison, August 4, 2012 at 7:55 p.m.

    I have said it before and am willing to do so again. High school coaches like Mr. Montgomery need to unite, perhaps through NSCAA, first to obtain the support of their players (and parents), and then to tell US Soccer that, if you want our players, you need to give them the option of playing high school in addition to Academy without being discriminated against. If US Soccer cannot accept this, those who choose Academy over high school should be regarded as scabs.

  17. Randy Vogt, August 4, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.

    I realize that soccer and swimming have very little in common. But perhaps it's more than trivial that Missy Franklin, who still chooses to compete for her HS swim team, won four gold medals and one bronze medal at the London Olympics. So HS sports have not impeded her development.

  18. Frank Heavner, August 4, 2012 at 11:25 p.m.

    Randy, the fact that Missy is representing the US in London and our U23s are not, is enough for me to believe that things needed to change.

    US Soccer made it's decision based on what it believes is the best interest of player development. The majority of players, not a couple of kids from the City, who by the way, have the option to play HS if they choose.

    James Madison, Really? Our best players should be scorned in the hallways, because they choose not to represent their school? What country do you live in? Go back to American football, maybe they'll have you.

  19. Michael Borga, August 5, 2012 at 10:41 a.m.

    If Frank truly believes that US Soccer made the decision based on what is best for the majority of players then I can only conclude that Frank believes the majority of players are attending the Development Academies? Aren't the academies are only supposed to have an effect on the top 2%-5% of High School players?

  20. Mark Hargreaves, August 5, 2012 at 10:51 a.m.

    I think it is terrible that we are making High School players choose between HS soccer sport and Club soccer. It should be all about players who love soccer having the all opportunities to play the wonderful game of Soccer.

  21. Jethro Dede, August 5, 2012 at 12:31 p.m.

    I agree with Mark it totally not fare to make us choose between high school soccer and academy soccer. This decision don't even make sense, who's idea was that anyway? Making us choose between what we love to do the most. If soccer in America have to move forward this is not how you treating it.

  22. Marcos King, August 5, 2012 at 9:01 p.m.

    The ussf president sunil has no clue what he is doing. The guy is an ego guy. Has he played soccer? Has he helped kids who have nothing like jacobson? I have. I do and I also understand that hs soccer keeps kids in school. Do the academy coaches check grades or daily attendance in school? Is the 10 weeks really going to stop the next great american player? Jacobson doesnt even mention ussf and their good old boy system of picking coaches and players. Sunil is a business man that should be replaced. I was a top level player, top level coach and just laugh at this people who are the supposed experts. by the way there are so many academy teams now the talent is way to spread out. it defeats the purpose and most of them are pay to play. Just have mls teams do academy ball. Anyways hats off to coach jacobson who ussf disrespects. Jacobson is a real soccer guy and he should be president of the ussf and sunil should wear jakes shoes for one day.

  23. Jack Niner, August 6, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.

    Can we agree finally that the BEST youth soccer players do NOT always attend academy!? If the academy's and US Soccer can't and won't admit that fact, then they are frauds.

  24. Lou vulovich, August 7, 2012 at 9:48 a.m.


  25. K Hakim, August 7, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.

    The whole concept of academies and ECNL is bogus. What does Claudio Reyna know about developing youth players to a national level? How many kids has he nurtured? Even the idea of MLS clubs developing players at ages 14-18 is ridiculous. They don't have the experience and too many kids will be lost from the education system when they are cut. This whole elitist scheme will not work. It is like IMG. Just because Serena Williams trained there one day, IMG claims they nurtured world class tennis players. If a player from an academy plays in MLS or further, they will claim it is the academy system, when we know it was the youth coaches 6-14 that did all the work. This scheme was devised by coaches who were frustrated with not winning everything and so by creating this false development league with ignorant US Soccer officials, they knew they could get most of the top players coming to them. Not realizing that skill is born everywhere and so better players will emerge in different environments. That's nature at work. The U17 Residency program did not work at creating a world class player because it is a false environment to express oneself. Players need competition of all levels and the environment to try things as they develop. You can't play win at all costs games every week and develop skilled players. You can't play in one age group and develop a world class player. Thus futsal is a better environment to nurture technically skilled players. Coaches who let their players dribble and wall pass are the best creators of skilled players. High School allows 14 year olds play against 18 year olds and with them, that is essential for growth and development. It works with the right coaching added. The Barcelona method does not work without Messi and Iniesta. But aren't they the best dribblers? So pass, pass, pass does not work. You only create role players. Limited skills. The fact is if US Soccer had a brain for the game, they would have revamped the ODP system. Instead of giving recruiting power to individual clubs, the states could have been the elite level for all players, boys and girls. Instead of a club player playing in a Memorial Weekend tournament for his or her club, they could have played in an ODP tournament, where the best in VA played the best in CT. National staff could have scouted that. Now, let the players train locally at their clubs, and every holiday weekend, have an ODP event where the top players meet. Clubs can feel proud of how many ODP players they have, and we have a legitimate national system of games, similar to the national team program that challenges the best players. It was simple but the states, US Soccer and USYS don't have a brain to figure it out. Like the failures in women's pro soccer, too many egos getting in the way of a simple method and pyramid for ALL players. Now if the ODP staff allow players to make their own decisions with the ball, then we finally may see world class talent emerge.

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