GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 21: Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (L) of USA looks on during the friendly match against Venezuela at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 21, 2012 in Glendale, Arizona. USA defeated Venezuela 1-0. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Heres the crux of it: if you want to play Academy-level soccer, don't plan on lettering for your high school team anytime soon. Last week,the US Developmental Academy announced a shift to a 10-month schedule, complete with a ban on any high school play by its members.
Its not all that surprising, really. The general sentiment has been talked about for years. High school is a lower level of play, where players risk getting injured or worn out. But is it that simple?
I thought back to four years ago, when I was playing high school soccer in Houston. Honestly, I couldn't imagine quitting my high school team. My brother was a star when he played, holding plenty of school records, and all of my friends were on the team. We started the season ranked #1 in the nation, and were stacked with a group of players infinitely better than I was.
And thats the problem: high school soccer was great for me because I got to play at a much higher level than what I could have otherwise. More than that, I could still succeed when I got onto the pitch, since the level of competition was fairly low once we took on other teams in our district.
My own experiences in high school don't mimic what is being asked of these Academy players. So I contacted my old teammate and best friend (stifle your "awwww's" people...) Cale Haas.
Cale played for the club formerly known as Texas Heat, was a teammate of mine in high school, and just finished out his college career. Between talk of senior year antics and revelry, he graced me with some insight on the matter. Hit the jump to see what he had to say (on the subject at hand, not the aforementioned antics and revelry). If either of our mothers are reading, I am of course referring to studying. Lots of studying. With books...and computers...or something...
I asked Cale what he though of the new USSF changes. While neither of us were a part of the Academy structure in club play, as it was implemented a year after our graduation, he was certainly a part of a team playing at an Academy level. Heres some hits from his response, with my score of Pro or Con from the perspective of the Academy players' development:
"High school soccer is a way for great players to maintain levels of fitness, keep their skills with the ball refined, and maintain confidence in a pressure-free environment"
My best comparison for this is like playing pre-season friendlies all season long. For the best players, against sub-par competition, high school games allow them to focus on the finer points of the game. In practice, where coaches don't have much time to implement a team identity through complex formations, the focus usually switches to fitness.
There is, however, a danger in playing down to the level of your opponents. Complacency can set in, and while teams can pass the ball around all day, you lose the necessity to create in a pressure situation. That, of course, is assuming you are on a successful squad. If you are the lone talent on your high school team, you may end up running around for 80 minutes a match trying to save your faltering team. That does little to foster development.
Result: Pro for fitness, Con for development.
"It also helps players build a sense of loyalty to their school and community...huge for any player pursuing a collegiate career"
This is a big one for me, and something that I think a lot of Academy players will miss. Since recruiting for football is done exclusively through high school play, the football team holds the hopes of an entire school - and sometimes an entire town - on its shoulders. This results in a type of culture and tradition espoused in shows like Friday Night Lights. High school soccer is similar, but less supported. Still, wearing your letterman jacket to school brings up a type of pride and status not reached by club play. While Dynamo Academy members might represent the future of the franchise, it is still represented in an iffy kind of way. They are supported insofar as they succeed at the senior level. This brings clout down the line, but I doubt that you'll find communities rallying around their Academy players anytime soon.
"If they had forbid high school soccer when I was playing I wouldn't have played...exposure and competition come from the club level"
College scouts recruit out Academy teams, while high school is more for show than anything else. The only top-level competition will come in the postseason, assuming you're on a successful team. Even then, I doubt you'll see many ACC and Big East coaches traveling to Texas to watch a high school state semi-final, but I could be wrong. Regardless, it isn't comparable to any Academy tournament, where scouts come out in droves and top-level talent is on display. Players will gain little exposure through their high school squad.
"club and academy must have a year-round season and tournaments...practice many times a week"
This has been addressed by USSF, and is the main point of the new Academy structure. With the extended schedule (10 months, instead of 7), the emphasis will be put on player development. Practices will become the most important asset to players, instead of being overloaded with games. In the old system, players spent just as much time (if not more) playing in competitive matches as they did practicing with their teammates. This addresses a common complaint against the old system, and represents the direction Klinssman is hoping to take the USSF.
So, overall I think this is a step in the right direction. The USSF is still a long way off from creating a coherent, thoroughly accepted structure. That will take time. This does begin to instill the culture of the Academy system as a means to develop top talent.
We are just now seeing the benefits of the Dynamo Academy's humble beginnings. Guys like Dixon and Soto are already making big strides with the Senior team, and this will only continue. Down the line, the policy change removes the mental and physical distraction of high school soccer from the equation. Now, the training staff can work, starting at the youngest levels, on bringing up players with a direct message. In 5 to 10 years time, this message will hopefully become part of the Dynamo culture/legacy/dynasty (?), etc.
For now, the Academy players will have to grin and bear the lack of clout they carry around campus. They may miss the letterman jackets, but a few years down the road they can hopefully don a Dynamo kit.
Could we get them Dynamo letterman jackets in the meantime?