Hold on! It does exist, and it’s massive. Nationwide. It’s called high school soccer.
Sometimes, hundreds of people show up for a high school game, the players are celebrated on campus, rivalries date back for decades, there’s even local media coverage.
Not always, but often around the country, high school games create a special kind of atmosphere in the stadium.
As you enter, there’s a snack bar with homemade baked goods and hot chocolate to raise money for senior night, the annual game when parents tear up like they do at graduation.
There’s a scoreboard, a PA announcer, and music blasting from the mixtape the captains compiled -- making sure they downloaded the censored versions of the latest rap songs -- while the players warm up.
Players from the same clubs play against each other – and the parents who usually root together are on separate sides after exchanging pleasantries. Postgame they congratulate and console each other.
Some club coaches are there too, proud that they’ve got current or former players on the teams. They mingle with the parents and catch up on old times. The boys team shows up to cheer on the girls, or vice versa. Friends and boyfriends and girlfriends are in the stands. The class clowns are leading cheers and jeers.
High school soccer differs from club soccer not just by exposing players to the pressure and exhilaration of playing in front of crowds, it also puts players from ages 14 to 18 -- from freshmen to seniors -- on the same field.
None of that seems to impress the U.S. Soccer Federation.
It started on the boys’ side. When U.S. Soccer launched the boys Development Academy in 2007, it allowed a break for high school soccer. But in 2012, it introduced a 10-month DA season and banned high school play.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team coach at the time, announced that, "If we want our players to someday compete against the best in the world, it is critical for their development that they train and play as much as possible and in the right environment."
One would not expect the German Klinsmann to have any appreciation for American high school sports, but the ban also got the blessing of then U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna, former U.S. World Cup captain and Hall of Famer, a big part of whose youth soccer experience was at St. Benedict’s Prep, the same high school where Tab Ramos, another Hall of Famer who is now the Youth Technical Director, starred.
So, although the likes of Reyna, Ramos, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard played high school soccer, the Federation had decided that high school soccer was no good for today’s players -- even though for whatever faults the high school game has, it had certainly improved over the years.
The high school vs. club battle predated U.S Soccer’s 2012 decree for its DA. And I imagine U.S. Soccer was doing a favor for the club coaches, who could now blame the Federation when telling kids to give up high school ball. Because it had to have been difficult to tell each of the 20-some players on the roster that sacrificing high school ball would be worthwhile in the long run.
Club coaches may be able to sincerely tell some of their players that they wouldn’t regret forgoing high school ball -- but no way would that be the case for every single player.
But U.S. Soccer was smart on the boys’ side by waiting until the DA was well-established before becoming so heavy-handed. It erred badly on the girls’ side.
The 2017-18 Girls DA season is in its first season and major clubs are already defecting, with the high school issue being a key reason. Those clubs can play in the well-established ECNL, launched in 2009.
Just as Mallory Pugh was emerging as a super talent, with everyone knowing she played high school soccer, in addition to ECNL ball, U.S. Soccer was disparaging high school ball while setting up a league to compete for the nation’s top talent with the ECNL.
Talk about bad timing.
People who know a heckuva a lot about girls and women's soccer, such as Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco, Amanda Cromwell, Julie Foudy, disagreed with U.S. Soccer’s attitude toward high school soccer.
But U.S. Soccer believes it’s paramount that kids play in one environment for 10 months. It only allows DA kids to play in its competitions. Dempsey, when he was a teenager, played club ball, high school and in the Hispanic adult leagues in the East Texas town of Nacogdoches. He’s managed to have a stellar career without having spent 10 months of every year as a teen in the same Federation-run environment.
Why the USSF has the confidence to believe only it knows exactly how every child should be coached is hard to see. That it didn’t have the foresight to see how problematic a high school ban would be for the Girls DA is puzzling.
The Federation could have considered that high school soccer is likely even more important for girls than for boys. It could have tried to manage a DA without its strict stance against high school ball.
The quality of high school soccer varies widely around the country. Some players are better off skipping high school ball -- and have since before the boys' DA or girls' ECNL started -- and there are players who will benefit from it. But instead of dismissing high school soccer because it has its flaws, U.S. Soccer could have appreciated its attributes and its potential, regarded it as a partner instead of a nuisance, and even taken steps to improve the high school game.
Now, if U.S. Soccer doesn't reconsider its attitude toward the high school game, it faces a major challenge in making the Girls DA the destination for the nation's top clubs and players.
But it has been clear in recent years that U.S. Soccer believes in a one-size-fits-all approach to youth soccer. That’s a perilous approach in a nation as large and diverse as the USA.