U.S. Soccer's high school ban -- why the clubs and the girls should decide

By Mike Woitalla

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.

25 comments about "U.S. Soccer's high school ban -- why the clubs and the girls should decide".
  1. James e Chandler, February 26, 2016 at 7:57 a.m.

    It's a mistake to take away youths' opportunity to share what they do best with the local community that helped make them who they are.

  2. Raymond Weigand replied, February 26, 2016 at 12:53 p.m.


  3. Kent James, February 26, 2016 at 9:08 a.m.

    The bigger problem is not so much the poor habits the DA players would pick up while they play HS, but rather by taking the DA players out of HS, the remaining HS players (which is a far greater number) lose the benefit of playing with the top players (the same thing happens to in-house leagues when the better players start to play travel). Not a problem if only the selected DA players will ever play at the higher levels, but since the selection process is never perfect, I think this problem is greater than the aforementioned issue of bad habits.

  4. Sal Lopez, February 26, 2016 at 9:25 a.m.

    For soccer to increase in popularity with non-soccer fans you need hometown heroes. High level players will draw the attention of the local community to the high school teams. Then these fans may watch these players grow and advance and have a personal connection with them like in the other major sports. People will then be able to say, "Yeah, I saw him/her play back when they were just a kid."

  5. Bob Ashpole, February 26, 2016 at 10 a.m.

    My concern is that USSF has focused its attention and resources on league management rather than player training. IMO this is a step backwards from the ODP program. I would rather have USSF focus on localized supplemental player training as Germany has proved successful. The high school ban is typical behavior for a bureaucracy. The USSF will have a plausible rationale, and I doubt very much if they will reconsider.

  6. R2 Dad, February 26, 2016 at 10:36 a.m.

    I always thought the DA disallowed boys playing for their high school was recognition that high school officiating would not protect these skilled players from the tender mercies of cynical opponents.

  7. Al Gebra, February 26, 2016 at 10:59 a.m.

    Sal, Yours is the best reason yet to not ban any competitive soccer player from playing high school ball. It's a community thing. I learned that 20 years ago when I coached a small high school in Wisconsin. They won league for the first time ever but better yet, we sure won over a lot of fans to soccer that year. The football team and their coaches hated the whole soccer program... and especially me.

  8. Peter Mullany, February 26, 2016 at 12:31 p.m.

    Interesting topic, my 2 cents -
    Agree with Sal/Al. High Schools and towns forge allegiance, excitement, and attendance. This is a feature of the US that is different from the rest of the world; there should be a way to meld international development models with this part of our sports/social culture and not just say "you can't play HS" when only a few will ever move on to pros let alone national team. Kids can see older kids to emulate. People don't go to watch club games unless their kid/sibling is playing. We want young kids and gifted athletes to see games and desire to be soccer players. There are other sports competing for their attention. Players can have great memories/friendships in HS ball to last a lifetime. Of course Club ball is way better for soccer development, that is not in debate, but is literally 2.5-3mo max of HS soccer going to completely set a player back? I doubt it, as long as coaching level improves. And not as much if they're all allowed to play, since level would be higher. They will still have a ball at their feet every day. Clubs and HS's could work out a practice scheme in which Club players could split practices.
    Lastly, Club and elite players might enjoy the less-pressure HS atmosphere and feel more free to play a creative game and try individual moves. We need this in US players!
    Finally, where are the amazing players being produced? The US has better overall player level but not tons in the way of unique creativity and skill. Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos were gifted and skilled - and they played HS soccer...

  9. Raymond Weigand, February 26, 2016 at 12:57 p.m.

    These kids should enjoy the best years with their friends and peers. Less than 1/10 of 1 percent will play professional ball, however, 98% will want to remember their high school days and the fun on and off the field.

  10. Blair Gibney, February 26, 2016 at 2:16 p.m.

    As a high school coach in Canada I don't face too many coaches who ban their players. The provincial team does ban them which sucks because they select the team midseason and we lose a top player for provincials. I do try to balance time demands by minimizing practice time and limiting game time when individual players have important club games or tournaments.

  11. Ric Fonseca, February 26, 2016 at 2:34 p.m.

    The whole enchilada is now a mish-mash of rules, regulations, high school, recreational club, affiliated and non-affiliated play, etc. Those of you here in California know that we're faced with a conflicting northern-southern Calif Interscholastic Federation rules, reg, bi-laws, etc. e.g. in the LA area schools, the vastly large LA Unified School District these play in fall during regular football season (impacting the use of facilities) while the so-called CIF non-LAUSD schools pl;ay during the winter (both girls and boys teams - unless the rules have changed) And then there is the "club" season, that is supposed to stop play for "BU14 and above) competition to allow players to play for their HS, and then pick up again in early-mid February - except for those schools in playoffs. And so what some of you might say, I've seen many players willingly violate the non-club play during HS, and vice versa, and then there is the tournament season with rules and regs that are worthy of having the supreme court iron out. Solution? Let the kids play both, oh, but wait, then there is the HS federation rulings that there should not be 'x' number of hs players playing for a club team reasoning that xyz high school should not have an advantage over abc high school, and so on and so forth. So if this is confusing, here comes US Soccer. Gender equity should be APPLICABLE to BOTH girls and boys teams, period. Oh Lord have mercy on all of this!!!

  12. BD Kern, February 26, 2016 at 3:08 p.m.

    I have very mixed emotions about not being able to play in high school. The side of me that agrees with the USSF remembers that four of my oldest son's teammates ('95) were seriously injured during their senior HS season in the DFW area (they were Classic League D1, not DA), although there had been no significant injuries during the club season in the previous two years. One concussion caused that player to quit sports permanently. The other side of me misses seeing the camaraderie of HS sports and local support that is encouraged. My '99, who is DA, doesn't miss it though because the quality of play in our area isn't very high (although it is in other areas of our region), but worse, the reffing is definitely not as good as the local Classic League and DA. Dangerous play is allowed much too often and "good athletes" are out there without much skill. Consequently, there are more injuries from terrible fouls.

    Until the quality of HS coaching and HS referees approaches what we see at the club level, I think the better/best players will continue to avoid their HS teams. Obviously it works for football, basketball, baseball, etc., and we know why. Until soccer works the same way in our schools, it's unlikely to change.

  13. James Madison, February 26, 2016 at 5:18 p.m.

    "Either or" instead of "both and" has long impeded the development of soccer in the United States and will continue to do so until hopefully the various organizations are run by well-integrated adults.

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, February 26, 2016 at 8:43 p.m.

    James, you said it excellently and I couldn't agree more! We must NEVER forget that it is the adults in youth sports that tend to ruin it for many. I recomment that folks read a very important article on a related issue that appears in today's February 26, 2016 Los Angeles Times' Sport Section, written by Mr. Sondheimer. The article focuses on one specific high school located in a fairly afluent community in the San Fernando Valley. The gist of the topic is the number of coaches and director's of athletics that have been forced out due to parental interference and influence. Not only is it a very interesting article but is indicative of what Mr. Madison above alludes to, the fact that many parents will go to great lengths to see to it that their child gets to start or play his/her position no matter the skill level. Article is very worthwhile reading!

  15. Goal Goal, February 26, 2016 at 10:46 p.m.

    In most any venture before you expand you try to see improvement so you have a base to work from. In boys soccer "DA" soccer I am talking about there has been a lot of time spent by many and several car loads of money spent by parents chasing a dream for their kids based on US SOCCER diatribe that has not materialized and is not showing a lot of success here lately. Now US SOCCER wants follow the same unsuccessful tracks with girls soccer. The step banning HS soccer for the boys was a mistake now they are going to fire the same shot into the other foot with the girls. US SOCCER is is making several mistakes with this mandate and I will mention two. They are insulting many very good HS coaches and programs who have had great success developing quality players across this country. Second they are preventing kids from partaking in a very important life and social experience. Why? The only thing this is doing is padding the pockets of the clubs. Intelligent people can negotiate and solve problems. Let's see it happen here.

  16. R2 Dad replied, February 27, 2016 at 12:39 p.m.

    Sorry, very good HS coach is an oxymoron. For every one coach that doesn't ruin everything they touch there are 25 that do: Practice every day? Why not, they're kids! Doing the same drills over and over? Repetitive motion injuries are the result of bad genes! Fundamentals? Not productive, let's practice set pieces, that's where goals are scored! Don't tell me high school coaches care about development--they're as rare as hen's teeth.

  17. Goal Goal, February 27, 2016 at 5:31 p.m.

    R2 I always try to make an effort not to generalize as you have. Contrary to your effort to group all H S coaches into a bunch of uncaring machines who have no desire or ability to develop quality players. It all depends where you live. Just as it depends on where you live and participate in club soccer even at the DA LEVEL. Their are many coaches at that level who shouldn't be there either. Stopping kids from participating in HS sports is foolish and US Soccer has no stats to support the validity of this strange rule. If they do let's hear it or better than that show me how it has improved the success of our youth national teams. Oxymoron is not valid here. Poor decisions and the failure to negotiate what is best for the kid is what stands out with this decision.

  18. Ric Fonseca, February 28, 2016 at 4:10 p.m.

    R@, once again reaching into my "seemingly bottomless bag" of soccer experiences, I have seen the run of high school coaches, from one friend who not only has his USSF licenses, to even having gone to England where he obtained his FA license; and there is another who also has his USSF papers, but also a Mexican and Brazilian licenses. These two have worked in high schools, highly dedicated and caring coaches finally quitting in disgust due to parental and football coaches meddling, in order to see to it that high school soccer fails. On the other extreme, I've seen walk-on coaches with nary the least bit of coaching experience, stepping in only when the public schools are in desperate search of someone to "take over the soccer team," mostly to be found in inner city schools, caring and soccer-knowledgeable but not licenses or credentialed. And lastly, there those high schools in the more affluent districts who hire those coaches who just happen to have a UK or European accent, claiming to have professional experience and four-year college "connections." How do I know? All I can say is that I've seen that, been there, and done that. Lastly Fanfor has called it like it is and has hit a "grand-slam homerun" (to use a bb jargon) And so the beat plays on, and on, and on...

  19. Nicholas Adams, February 28, 2016 at 6:49 p.m.

    Having coached both I do believe that HS soccer is badly managed by the state bodies. Here in the North East there is no club soccer for U15 and up in the Fall because it's assumed that they will be playing HS.
    I do though believe that you cannot ask a young player to play at least two games a week, train everyday on top of school work AND often, a part time job, with just 10 days pre season training!
    As a club coach , I've also had key players injured playing the more 'industrial' HS soccer and I do find that the vast majority of players pick up a lot of bad habits from coaches who may not be that qualified, and then have to spend the winter fixing it.
    I know this argument will go on and on but I agree with the Academies in that if an Academy is investing time and money in a player's development, that should not be damaged or put at risk by playing HS Soccer which will, in most cases, not contribute to their development in the slightest.

  20. John Ragonese, March 1, 2016 at 9:41 a.m.

    I agree with Peter M's perspective above but would add that this has become a more sensitive issue now that the DA has moved to the U12 level. While I am not certain whether this is a USSF rule or not, but was told my 2004 DA son can no longer play for another club at the same time next Fall. I cannot understate the level of coaching and player development from a technical/tactical perspective the DA has provided him. And I appreciate the issue of too much practice-not enough recovery time for dual-club young players, which can lead to injury, burn-out, etc at a young age. BUT I would counter those arguements with a willingness by a non-DA club or coach to be flexible on practices, defer to the DA schedules for training and games and ultimately do what is best for the player - not their team. In doing so, the DA maintains a young, committed player, who trains and plays in the DA, developing at a top level; BUT also allows the player to to be more creative and expressive on the pitch in a less rigid, non-DA - something USSF should recognize and foster. By furthering the outright ban on dual-club play at the U12 level, it flies in the face of the psychosocial element (particularly at the U12-U14 age) that USSF has wisely focused on. My take is such an outright ban, will ultimately result in the loss of passionate talented players from staying with the sport. Let's be less rigid and more creative and expressive in our rules too!

  21. Forever Blue, March 1, 2016 at 10:57 a.m.

    These are all good points.
    I believe the major conflicts with HS soccer are the HS Rules and the fact that Academy soccer will have to take a break during HS season. You cannot expect a player to play 2 games during the week and then be able to compete at a High level in a DA game over the weekend. HS season varies according to different states/regions so there is no standard period nationally where the DA can say we are taking a break. (Like the FIFA break for international play).
    However I do think banning HS soccer will harm the ability to grow the sport in the US. Most Americans are still programmed to value HS sports. You take it away and soccer goes back to being an obscure sport only for the few interested who pay attention to club games.
    Another point is that HS players get to practice every day. Most practice twice a day during the season. And it fits within the schedule of the player without any added trips to other facilities. US soccer may be better served to leverage the HS program. Convince HS districts to standardize soccer rules to match more of an international standard. It would also help to provide a basic training footprint for the coaches so there practices are more productive. Some HS program are pretty good and others; not so much. My experience is that girls eventually quit if the HS program is too disrupting and the teams are really bad. ( I actually had a HS player quit club because she preferred the HS team playing style and coach…… go figure).
    In summary HS soccer means more to girls than boys. Trying to simply copy the boy’s DA program and rules with putting any though into it is a mistake.

  22. Wesley Hunt, March 1, 2016 at 11:24 a.m.

    High school sports are huge in my area. Soccer season is in the fall. No Acdmies within 2 hours drive. Mostly small towns in a rural area but we regularly send some of the best soccer teams to states. All clubs realize that there are no high school students during the season. HS Coaches range from horrible to pretty darn good. But one thing that does stay the same. If your team makes it to districts, or better yet states, a good portion of the school and community will be there to cheer you on. It is not quite like football but is getting close. I have never seen that kind of support for club soccer even at the biggest tournaments and you probably never will as that the players are from all over and there are not the community connections you get with High School. Structural problems with HS soccer are the same as many have stated before. Too many games in too short a season and not enough training or down time for the athletes. Very inconsitant refereeing and bizarre rules that change the nature of the game. That said it is the best show in town when your team is doing well and whole school is cheering you on. In addition it is accessible to any kid who lives in the school district and can make the team. If a kid is on a DA team and does not play how do you think he feels when left out of this? Think of what his soccer mates at school are saying to him. I think US soccer threw out the baby with the bathwater when they banned there DA kids from playing HS soccer. Surely there is a comprimise in there somewhere if only the entities involved could muster the energy or gumption to work for it.

  23. Dennis Tronson, March 1, 2016 at 11:45 a.m.

    Amazing. Clubs and coaches again chasing $$$$. Being in a DA does not make a coach. With regards to HS rules we here in Washington State have went away from NFHS rules in favor of FIFA rules for all High School play. Just a thought how can we now have a 17 year old player on the National team who played High School. This move is the rich urban players are DA an others just quit playing the sport we all love.
    By the way I have coached Elite club, College and High School. I prefer HS for the relationships with players and community.

  24. Paul Nutley, March 1, 2016 at 1:55 p.m.

    My two cents - USSF is just incorporating change for the sake of change. The new Birth Year Mandate takes the prize of the dumbest thing the Federation has possibly ever done. There was absolutely no reason for it at all. ODP, ID2, DA, etc. were already setup by Birth Year! Why do they feel the need to put the other 3+ Million youth soccer players in complete chaos? Mandating that kids not play HS ball is nothing but a money grab. I have seen Club coaches that couldn't hold a HS coach's jock and vice versa. Now you have Clubs that aren't part of any DA or affiliated with an MLS Club trying to get their players to skip HS too. These ego maniacs need to take a look in the mirror because I'll bet 95+% of them played for their HS teams back in the day. Let the kids decide!

  25. aaron dutch, March 5, 2016 at 2:26 p.m.

    My broken record soap box.. Ric as always is right. This all ties back to the train wreak of of Football operating Model we have in the US. Without clear pyramid, pro/rel, Academy model, high school/NCAA USSF integration, womans/girls clubs being integrated into the division model of the men etc.. Without these type of changes all we get are these bandaid one off's which try to put a few hundred players that USSF academy has developed every 10 years for MLS for free (another subsidy for MLS) and try to get 10-20 of the best to europe if we are lucky. This model would be fine if we were a small country which is just trying to develop but we are so large and spend so much to get these results is pathetic. Its all about organization, leadership, vision, etc.. Gulati and the board need to go.

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