The club vs. high school battle plagued American youth soccer long before the U.S. Soccer Federation banned high school ball for its Boys Development Academy players in 2012.
Club coaches argued that players aspiring to reach the top must compete at the highest level of youth soccer and get the best coaching -- which, of course, they claim only they can provide. They might not mention that club coaches earn their living from their players’ fees and year-round club soccer means year-round income.
If elite players spend three months of the year playing (cost-free) high school ball, the clubs seem to believe, they’ll pick up all sorts of bad habits that even the genius club coaches can’t undo.
The U.S. Soccer Boys Development Academy plays a 10-month season, and deserves kudos for giving players a two-month break – more than many youngsters get who play at lower levels of the youth game. The Boys DA allowed high school play when it launched in 2007, before mandating the ban in 2012.
I imagine that mandate came as a big relief to the club coaches, because it took the onus off them for making the case to players that giving up high school ball would be a worthwhile sacrifice.
In fact, the mandate was a gift to non-MLS clubs, because MLS academies have an easier time convincing players to give up high school ball. The boys might not get to play for their school, but they’re getting to play high-level ball cost-free – with the status of being affiliated with a pro club.
No doubt, for many players, a strong argument can be made that spending all 10 months with their Academy -- MLS club or not -- is optimal for their development and that they won’t regret giving up high school ball -- because they’ll get recruited for college ball, invited to the national team program, or find the path to the pros.
But when you’ve got a roster of some 20 players, can a coach sincerely make the case for each and every one of them that skipping high school ball will be worth it? With the mandate, the club coaches can just say, “It’s the Federation’s rule.” And if it doesn’t work out, it’s the Federation’s fault.
In 2017, U.S. Soccer will launch its Girls Development Academy and is banning high school ball from the get-go. I believe there are enough differences between female and male soccer to consider different approaches, as I wrote in a previous column. The Federation obviously disagrees.
So even while we watched 17-year-old Mallory Pugh, whose club Real Colorado lets her play high school ball, impressively break into the U.S. national team as it qualified for the 2016 Olympics, the Federation is telling us high school soccer is bad for girls.
Could it be that the Federation considers this a gender equity issue? If boys are banned from high school ball, then so must the girls?
Well, if that’s the case, do treat them the same. The boys weren’t banned from high school ball when their DA was launched. It was left to the clubs and the kids to decide if they did both.
Start the Girls DA by letting the players and clubs make the call on high school soccer. Do that for a few years, like they did with the boys. And then we’d get something interesting.
The Federation closely tracks all the DA clubs and their players. Which means in a few years, we’d get a good amount of data comparing the players who skipped high school against those who didn’t.
Then we’d have a much clearer assessment of whether spending a few months playing high school ball really has the awful effect on players the Federation claims it does.