On Feb. 10th the U.S. Development Academy announced they were changing their season to a 10 month format.Â This significantly lengthens the Academy season and forces U.S. youth soccer players to choose between playing high school soccer and playing for the Development Academy.
The change has been championed by USMNT Technical Director and former star Claudio Reyna as well as new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.Â They say an extended 10 month season means much more training time, increased playing time at a very competitive level, and more time for long-term technical development.
Many others have expressed concern over the decision because it will take elite players from the high school game.Â There’s limited access to the Development Academy because of financial and geographic limitations, they say, and many elite players will fall through the cracks because the overall quality of high school programs is sure to suffer when top players are forced to make a choice.
The Development Academy points out that only 1% of high school players will be affected by this change, and that they are working with Academy clubs to address the financial problems raised by a much longer 10 month season.
And since Academy play more closely resembles international competition, with limited substitutions and FIFA rules, the argument follows that players that develop through their process will be better prepared physically and mentally for play on the international stage when the time comes.
But why can’t teenage players have both high school and Academy development?
That’s the question a lot of parents and high school coaches are asking.Â The answer, even though it wasn’t put this way specifically by the U.S. Development Academy, is: Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond (the lone elite player or team in a sea of high school mediocrity) or a small fish in an international pond (part of a school of aspiring professional athletes)?
The updated Academy schedule, incidentally, now mirrors the development process for just about every European and South American powerhouse, countries that regularly contribute talent to the top tier professional leagues in the world like the EPL, La Liga, and the Serie A.
Yet those countries don’t have an ingrained high school and college sports tradition like the United States.Â It is a fact that high school and college football has been the primary system for turning kids into NFL players, and it has been that way for years.Â Why can’t the same system work for U.S. Soccer?
Well, for one thing, high school soccer isn’t as universally developed as high school football so clearly is.Â Every rural town in America has a football program.Â The same can’t be said for soccer, and even where high school programs exist there is a gulf between the top high schools and the bottom rung in terms of community support, coaching, and recruitment.
U.S. soccer already loses so many top athletes to other sports.Â There is certainly something to be said for the giving the elite players who do stay with the sport into high school the best opportunity to not only excel in high school competitions but at a higher level, where training, competition, and coaching is consistently the best this country has to offer.
If future American soccer stars are to be able to compete on an international level at a younger age, then taking a page from the top soccer countries in the world is likely to be the best place to start.Â Taking the big fish out of the little ponds all over the U.S. is our best shot at developing superstars who can take the world soccer stage and the MLS to the next level.
What do you think?Â Should youth players be forced to choose between Academy and High School?Â Which program gives young players the best shot to succeed?