High School vs. Club: Can this storm be sent out to sea?

By Greg Winkler

Whether it is a major blizzard moving through the Midwest and East Coast, a tornado ripping through the plains, or a tropical storm forming on the way to the Gulf coast, we know how devastating a major storm can be to our communities. We may or not be aware that there is a storm brewing on our own soccer front. This soccer storm, with some collaboration and communication, can be blown out to sea or it could devastate and rock the soccer world. That storm is the high school vs. club soccer debate.

The new slogan flying around out there is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” As a high school coach for two decades in the Midwest, for the most part we had a pretty good relationship with the local club team. In my case, I was the president and coach of our local club as well as a large school high school boys and girls varsity coach. Our club and high school schedules meshed quite well: both organizations taking off while the other was “in-season.”

When people would bring up the high school vs. club issue, it was because a few players would leave for an ECNL team or US Club team that required a 10-month commitment and did not allow the player to do both. A high school coach or team may lose a player here and there but it only affected a small number.

On top of that, the state high school governing bodies had rules in place to prevent athletes from competing in the same sport during the same season. A player for me was not allowed to go play a soccer game on the weekend with a club team. During the high school season, the players belonged to the high school team and commitment was a character trait we taught and cherished. The biggest club issue we had was keeping our players from getting too active with a club team of a different sport like basketball or volleyball during our season.

Imagine my surprise when I took a new job in Florida as a high school coach. The number of ECNL clubs on the West and East Coast and the South are higher, and the Florida state high school association has no rule about playing on teams outside the high school. Players on my team were trying to be committed to our high school team and to a club team that was also practicing and competing at the same time.

What does that look like? Here is a two-week example:

HS-high school, C-Club, P-Practice, G-Game
Monday P; Tuesday HS-G; Wednesday P; Thursday HS-G; Friday HS-P; Saturday C-G; Sunday C-G
Monday P; Tuesday P/C-P; Wednesday P; Thursday HS-G; Friday HS-P; Saturday C-G; Sunday C-G.

As you look at the sample schedule of a two-week portion of my schedule, what are some concerns you may have? Should players be practicing twice in one day? We are talking about a 3 p.m. high school practice and a 7 p.m. club practice. What about competition days? Depending on the weekend event, a player following this schedule is competing 3-6 times per week? Do you see any rest period in this schedule? What if the high school team has a Saturday event?

Players start to choose what games and practices they attend, causing a real problem with commitment. Is it possible to commit to two programs? Can you see the problems that arise? The culture I walked into did not see a problem with a girl missing a high school practice or two during the week yet playing in the games. What are you telling the team about committing to practice and the team?

Players were choosing club over high school because the club coach uses the college scholarship carrot and holds back playing time. Holding back playing time in the big tournaments means less exposure. Parents have invested money and time away from other family activities to pursue the promise of a college scholarship. That can be an article all by itself, for another day.

Another concern from the high school side is the disrespect shown to high school coaches from the clubs. A letter I received prior to my season from an ECNL coach detailed the times a player we shared could attend my high school events. He made it very clear that this player, a junior in high school, would commit to the club team first. He did not want her playing high school, but he was allowing it as long as she did exactly what he said.

Instead of making a rule for his ECNL players to forgo their high school seasons, he manipulated them. My belief is that he was afraid of the backlash from the parents if he did not allow them to experience high school. Most of the high school coaches want the players to enjoy the high school experience and work with the athlete. The coach from this team had no time for the high school coaches involved, and let them all know in this letter, the superior opportunity he provided.

This puts a lot of pressure and emotional strain on these young adults. These players are trying to meet the demands of both coaches, not wanting to disappoint their teammates, their coaches, or their classmates. It is an impossible task for the players. High school is about the total educational experience and most of the coaches I associate with do their best to accommodate these players in conflict.

In the Midwest I appreciated the rule about no club during the sport season. While I did not like losing players to ECNL or the club, there was a rule from the state association and from the ECNL. A player was not in the position to do both; they had to make a decision. The simplest solution is for the governing bodies to take a stand. As a coach, if I say they cannot do both, those players transfer to a school that allows it. The playing field is not level and we still do not solve the issue of young players being put in the middle.

Another issue arises for the states that play a winter season. If we take out the “elite” players, those following the ECNL path, we still have the local club teams. If high school is played in the winter, there are many club tournaments throughout the South and Southwest. Disney has awesome facilities and provides a unique competitive experience for club teams. With the college season ending in November, many collegiate coaches use the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks to attend these club tournaments to recruit. For those winter high school leagues, maybe a competitive window could be put in for high schools to take a short break and allow for club competition. Or maybe places like Disney need to offer a high school bracket in the tournament.

This issue is not going away anytime soon. Maybe it is time for the leaders of all of these organizations, the NFHS, the NSCAA, US Club Soccer, U.S. Soccer, and anyone else with a stake in this game to get together and have a dialog. It is time to put the egos away and truly look at the best interest of, not only soccer in this country, but of the well-being of our kids.

High school coaches in this country are often treated like second-class citizens. Many of these men and women have sacrificed long hours and low pay to provide a truly unique experience for young kids. Many of your high school coaches have chosen to remain in the high school game even though they had the opportunities to make more money working for a club because they value what the game can offer as far as developing life skills.

Most of the coaches who demean the high school coaches refer to high school soccer as nothing more than a recreational program flourished in high school. Many received high school honors, some even obtained scholarships from their exposure in high school. Now because of financial gain they kick it to the curb.

Let’s start a dialog. Let’s get people together and come up with a strategy to divert this storm that is starting to corrode the fabric of our game. Whether you coach U-5, high school, college, club, or professionally, we are in this together. Let’s put the children first again and send this storm out to sea.

(Greg Winkler is the NSCAA’s Boys High School Advocacy Chair. Currently girls head coach of George Jenkins High School in Florida, he was 2012 NSCAA National Youth Coach of the Year, 2006 Wisconsin Youth Soccer Coach of the Year and 2005 NFHS Midwest Boys Coach of the Year. Winkler is the author of Coaching a Season of Significance.)

20 comments about "High School vs. Club: Can this storm be sent out to sea?".
  1. Eric Stratman, February 24, 2015 at 11:52 a.m.

    As a coach in the Midwest as well as a High School event organizer, I have seen my fair share of issues with High School vs Club. I have three strong opinions that I feel are issues.

    1) The fact that High School Soccer is played in 3 different seasons is an issue. It doesn't allow for club/academy programs to have a season. If High School soccer were played across the country during the same 3 month period, it would allow club teams and events to adjust their schedule accordingly.

    2) High school coaches don't do enough for their kids to pursuade them to keep playing HS soccer. The status quo of coaching only during your season and playing the same old games on your schedule isn't enough. Coaches need to spend time with their players in the summer and look for events during the season that the players will look forward too. Find an out of town tourney to attend or a high profile event to be a part of.

    3) HS coaches can't compete with club coaches because most club coaches make a heck of a lot more money than a HS coach. As a matter of fact, most club coaches do this for a living so yes they can devote more time to soccer when they don't have to teach all day and then grade papers at night. On the flip side, I am betting a lot of club coaches wouldn't stay in the game if they were paid what a HS coach get's paid, which isn't much.

    The Academy programs are winning because they don't care what feathers they ruffle to get the best players. HS coaches try to be politically correct in their approach. The Academy program has a Cool-Aid stand on every corner and most people buy the cool-aid. Telling a kid that the only way they can get to college or MLS or the national team is by playing at the highest level is true. I totally get that concept. The problem with the concept is that they are selling it to 5000 kids and there isn't room for 5000 kids at any of these levels. There has to be a better way to identify the best of the best while not taking away the HS experience for so many kids. I strongly believe that the top 50-75 kids at each age level should play at the highest level possible. But it's the other kids that are getting lost in the shuffle. We hear about all of these kids who are playing DA and getting college scholarships. Well 10 years ago those same kids were the ones getting college scholarships before the DA ever existed. What would be more telling for me is how many DA kids don't get college scholarships yet miss out on the HS experience.

    There is room for both to exist, but it will never happen. USSF has already taken the heat and survived it. I personally don't think it is helping because we still haven't developed the younger levels into being able to compete consistantly with the elite level teams across the world. After 8 years of the DA, we should be seeing a bigger difference.

  2. Georges Carraha, February 24, 2015 at 1:07 p.m.

    I am looking at this issue as a Club Coach and as a parent of a High School player. Both programs should co-exist peacefully and work together toward helping the player to enjoy the experience and get better. No one owns the players but the parents and this is where we need to start. What are the hurdles and problems on both sides?
    Some of the Coaches at the High School level (Freshmen and JV) are teachers and have no clue about good coaching and their methods could really hurt the players physically. They make them run like crazy and they practice almost every day. The players are prone to injuries and their bodies get beat-up. In the North East, we do not encounter this problem much because the clubs do not play much during the late Fall/Winter. There is no harm technically or tactically if the players are sound and well-equipped. Let's them have fun and take pride in helping their town. On the Academy issue, I have refused to let my boys play for them despite many requests to join. The fee is crazy and the players are developed to only play in one style. It is a racket and USSF should find ways to expose the young players to higher soccer rather than forcing them to join academies to find exposure. Academies find success becasue they have a squad with players at the same level. Is their success a measure of good coaching? NO

  3. Fingers Crossed, February 24, 2015 at 1:10 p.m.

    There is enough room in the soccer-sphere in the US for club and high school soccer to co-exist and do well. In my opinion, it should come down to what the player and his family want to do. If the kid wants to play for a club, then he/she can do that. If the kids wants to play for their high school, they should do that. I do believe that playing for both is a big mistake. It's too many games, too many practices and ultimately increases the odds of injury. State high school bodies should have a rule that says you can only do one or the other.

    There is no question that the competition at the club level is higher and the coaching (overall) tends to be better than high school. Don't get me wrong, there are many great high school coaches out there but it is very uneven across the board. At least at the club level, if you don't like the coach, you can switch clubs. You can't do that in high school (if you are in a public school). The clubs are also only drawing from the top 10% of players so high school teams on average may lose 1 - 3 players. I think this club/high school issue gets overwrought. I don't really see what the big deal is. There is room for both models to work successfully.

  4. Mark Konty, February 24, 2015 at 1:29 p.m.

    Indiana has a fall HS season and Indiana Youth Soccer, the state-wide governing body for club soccer, does not run leagues in the fall from U15 on up so the players can play HS without club conflict. At this level there is a lot of cooperation between club and HS, at least in my neck of the woods. The club coaches enjoy going to the HS games and watching their players, especially when it's a HS rivalry game and their players are split between the two local HS rivals. The players love it, rivals in HS, teammates in club. There are some conflicts at the highest levels, but we have so many college programs around here that a good HS player knows he will be seen by some of the nation's top programs. The biggest conflict is a set of arcane rules governing how many players from a high school can be on a club team (5). It makes it difficult for the clubs, their coaches and the players. If we can get rid of this rule that would remove the last source of conflict in our area.

  5. Kevin Leahy, February 24, 2015 at 2:17 p.m.

    Who would let their child have a seven day a week schedule? It starts with the parents. Pro players would never do seven days a week. I have met many qualified high school coaches and many lousy club coaches. The child should choose with proper guidance but, what happens if the parents guidance is skewed? There is no solution but, any coach that puts all of this on a kids shoulder is not a professional.

  6. Lonaka K, February 24, 2015 at 2:53 p.m.

    Eric Stratman, great post. Someone should take on a project to accumulate the statistic for where all DA players are today. I think that only 1 % or less of the players in the DA system ends up playing professionally and probably only 50 % of the DA players get any kind of scholarship that a high percentage of players will go through life not having the high school experience. My children and grandchildren all have played HS and Club ball and have earned collage scholarships. All have great memories of both their HS and club experiences. Rather than focusing at the HS level, coaching should be focused on the U14 and younger ages. Our players should be proficient with their first touch, passing and shooting. Look at the US players when they strike a ball in an attempt to score, 80-90% of the time the strike will NIT BE ON FRAME. Watch players from other countries, their strike are almost always on frame. Check out the World Cup game where Tim Howard made 16 save. We need to be on the other end of that statistic.

  7. Eric Stratman, February 24, 2015 at 5:20 p.m.

    One point I will make as far as the boy's side of things. The really good programs in the Midwest (Illinois, INdiana, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin) felt the ding of Academy going 10 month quite a bit when it started, However, as things have progressed, I think you find the better programs now look at it as a, "I will coach who is here and not worry about who isn't." With the DA going 10 months, it didn't just affect soccer. I don't care what programs you set up or where you start, but soccer in the USA will NEVER be what it is in foreign countries. In Argentina, Germany, France, Brazil, Italy, Spain, etc. every kid grows up playing soccer. The absolute best athletes play soccer. That isn't the case in the USA. In the USA, soccer is more of an elitist sport and thus inner city kids often times don't have the opportunity to play. another issue is In foreign countries, guys like John Wall, Derek Rose, Megatron, Demarco Murray, etc. would be growing up kicking a soccer ball. They are the best athletes in their sport. They are big, strong, fast. The USA doesn't EVER get those players because they are not idolized, widely publicized, and quite frankly don't get the money. Other countries are not competing with other major sports like the USA does.

  8. R2 Dad, February 24, 2015 at 11:50 p.m.

    I'm sure there are many enlightened high school and club coaches--I just don't see too many of either. From what I've seen in HS, our kids get extensive PT, mostly for the benefit of the players in the team that don't play club and aren't so fit. The every-day practices wouldn't be so bad if there were more ball control/touch-oriented games vs running w/o the ball and scrimmaging exercises. In our state club runs concurrently with HS and there is pressure to attend BOTH. Throw in another sport and it's a year-round struggle to maintain physical and scholastic balance.

  9. Juan carlos Aguilar, February 25, 2015 at 7:39 a.m.

    Hig school coaches in the northern east are not qualify to coach soccer majority ,not all are
    teachers that become coaches with no soccer lincese or experience they just get throwing in just to make a buck I'm glad that the academy clubs don't aloud their players to participate in such a recreational programs

  10. Juan carlos Aguilar, February 25, 2015 at 7:49 a.m.

    i could only say get the real coaches to coach soccer at the high schools the same as the club premier level coaches and you
    will see the problem solve

  11. Juan carlos Aguilar, February 25, 2015 at 7:59 a.m.

    and by the way get rit off that stupid rule that if you play Hig school you can't play club remember

    the more you play the better you get
    i was born in south America i play neirborhood team ,school team, club team and pick up games any where i go at the same season and the were no body telling me i can't play for this club or that school, my teachers wen to see me play at the clubs games and they cheer me on !!!!!!

  12. Justin Motzkus, February 25, 2015 at 11:36 a.m.

    The biggest problem is when players are PREVENTED from doing what is best for them and HAVE NO CHOICE.

    In my Midwest State there are few High School coaches that are very good at all. Typically, it's just kick the ball and run. And players are not even allowed to participate on any other team if they play on a HS team. So, there is no competitive club ball during HS in our area, but there are some REALLY good club teams. How does that help the better players progress??

    If there is a choice and parents and players over schedule themselves, that's a parent player problem - not a soccer system problem.

    Now, if a 16 year old boy is doing so well on his club team that he gets a call from a local semi pro team and asked to train with them occasionally - the player can't even do so if he wants to play HS at all. This is a soccer system problem!

  13. D Sho, February 25, 2015 at 7:52 p.m.

    I am curious to see what Mr Winkler's reaction would be to hear that our high school soccer team not only practices 6 and sometimes 7 times a week but also twice a day from June until August then drops to once a day on school days and twice a day on weekends.

  14. Fingers Crossed, February 26, 2015 at 10:40 a.m.

    Eric, there was much to agree with in your first post but your second one leaves a lot to be desired. Are you suggesting that Xavi, Iniesta, Cazorla and Silva are the "best athletes" in Spain and that Messi is one of the "best athletes" in Argentina? There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of those American athletes you mentioned would ever be good soccer players. If anything, history has shown that smaller players have been dominant. Look at Pele, Maradona, Messi, Cruyff, Zidane, Pirlo. None of these players are physically imposing or extraordinarily fast. There is a lot of fantastic talent at the youth level in America. Our kids can compete against other countries at U14 and below. Just look at US Club Soccer's ID2 teams that play overseas each year. Where it starts to fall apart is that U15 - U18 range and it's because we don't have a clear path or structure in place to take the very best of these kids into the right setup. US Soccer has made progress but there is still a long way to go. But we need to stop this notion that somehow if we could just get more "athletes" from the inner city into soccer, the US would be better on the world stage. Last time I checked, the Netherlands and Germany both have pretty high standards of living yet they still manage to produce excellent soccer players. Robin Van Persie's parents were a sculptor and a painter. Thomas Muller's father worked for BMW. They weren't from an inner city. A good soccer player is a good soccer player, no matter what their size is or what their socio-economic background is.

  15. M L replied, October 8, 2015 at 4:13 p.m.

    Fingers, you do realize when you imply that because our middle schoolers can beat Croatia means we are firing on all pistons -- that you're being nuttier than those who you believe are nuts, don't you?

    And yes, Eric is suggesting that Xavi, Iniesta, Cazorla, Silva … Pele, Maradonna, Messi, Cruyff, Zinane, Pirlo, and all these other fancy-sounding names are among the best athletes from their countries. And that our national sport's Varsity would easily crush theirs if we only played one national sport.

    Tom Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots and Montreal Expos. I’m sure if soccer was our dominant sport, he probably would’ve played for Santa Clara, Stanford, or even Michigan, gone pro, and would have played in three or four World Cups by now.

    Derek Jeter, John Wall, Derek Rose, Odell Beckham, KOBE BRYANT, BARRY SANDERS, LEBRON JAMES, MIKE TROUT, PATRICK KANE – they would’ve likely been great soccer players, too, if we were a soccer-first/soccer only country like, let’s say, Belgium. Whose No. 2 sport is ping pong, or something.

    I don't know why this is such a difficult concept for all you soccer snobs out there.

  16. James Madison, February 26, 2015 at 6:09 p.m.

    This an issue that has been complicated by the fact that different regions play high school soccer in different seasons, in some instances because of weather constraints, also by the fact that different states have different rules regarding playing out of high school at the same time as playing in high school. The rules that prohibited our of high school play during high school season originated in baseball in order to prevent competition over the use of pitchers. However, the rules (or their absence) now affect other sports, including, as Coach Winkler describes, soccer. The Academies have added a further complicating factor. US Soccer would be well-advised to organize and fund a task force of represeentatives of as many different interests as can be assembled to study the issue and attempt to develop a consensus in support of a model solution.

  17. Lonaka K, February 26, 2015 at 8:15 p.m.

    D. Sho, practices does not make perfection, in most cases practices make permanent. If you have poor coaches they will allow poor habits to be formed and the players will not advance beyond a certain level. You need coaching that will instill good habits and bad habits corrected.

  18. Didi P, February 27, 2015 at 5:45 p.m.

    I am very neutral on this issue. I'm just telling you about the reality, on the boy side at least: academy wins out by a landslide.

    The reason is that college coaches recruit players almost exclusively from academy teams and stop looking at high school games entirely. At academy showcase, you may have several hundred college coaches watching one game.

    I know some top high school players in the country and some states still get scholarship and into good soccer programs. But that's only for some high profile cases (player of the year, big tournament MVP...). Majority of high school players don't get any look from college coaches.

    So if you want to play college soccer (let alone wanting to be a pro), academy soccer is pretty much the only option you have to take

  19. Susan Patterson, February 28, 2015 at 1:53 p.m.

    So Cal -
    As a mother of an ECNL player in So Cal, i understand the situation. However, I'd like to point out, that this type of schedule is routine in a D1 environment - as my player is now experiencing. I say to all those in this situation, get prepared! If your child want to play for a D1 school, having this type of regiment will be expected at the next level, and more. Personal experience, even playing in So Cal, for an ECNL team does not prepare you for the amount of work at the D1 level. I believe the soccer community at the high school ages, both club and high school, need to step it up and truly prepare the players for the next level.

  20. Tony Gravato, March 6, 2015 at 11:11 a.m.

    Just read this in the interview with US Club Soccer CEO, Kevin Payne:

    "SA: Any final words on something that shouldn’t be happening in American youth soccer?

    KEVIN PAYNE: You still have clubs in the U.S. who will be resentful if one of their players goes to play for an MLS team’s Academy … and they’ll talk about boycotting MLS games.

    That would never happen in Munich or Manchester or Barcelona. That thought wouldn’t cross people’s minds."

    I think everyone needs to stop looking ad the DA as the enemy and instead of as a friend. Lets remember that the kids who get bumped out of DA, come out with technically and tactically a little better. It sucks to say that, but it is the truth.

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