Athletes in Court

US Soccer Federation elite development: a bad idea takes hold

Posted in Olympics, Soccer

Sometimes a rule or organizational change in sport captures my attention.  Such is the case with the United States Soccer Federation’s new direction in elite development. The Federation has adopted a new policy of year-round development that requires boys to drop high school participation in many areas across the country. As reported in the NYT, “the shift by the federation applies to its top boys teams around the country, requiring players on those teams — known as Development Academy teams — to participate in a nearly year-round season and, by extension, forcing them and their soccer moms and dads to decide whether they should play for their club or play for their school.”

Consider this, promising middle school soccer players–kids 11 and 12 years old–will have to decide with their families whether to chase the Olympic dream or to play for their local school.  If they choose to play with Development Academy, they forgo their local school program and community.  If they choose to play high school soccer, they lose any chance to be recruited to the highest echelons of the sport.  This policy change is a bad idea.

The decision points out what is fundamentally wrong with current trends in high school sports.  There are about 75 national level development teams with nearly 3,000 kids making up the talent pool that the national team draws from.  With the change, these 3000 kids are giving up an experience in local high school sports for a shot at the national team.  A team that is comprised of how many kids?  Not 3,000–and not 300 for that matter.  So these kids sacrifice their youth for the hope–realistic or not–that they may be one of the few chosen.  Perhaps 50 out of 3000 will get to the top level for a try-out, and from that pool a handful will actually play for the US National team.  The rest are on a path of controlled failure as they reach dead-ends that will leave them without a team, a high school, or a connection to a community. The Federation’s rationale is that the few that do make the team will be able to compete at the highest level of the sport.  But at a heavy price.

As most high school coaches recognize, sport has its most positive impact on the local level.  In his article, Sam Borden interviewed Dan Woog, the boys soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn.  Coach Woog recalled the night his team won a league championship several years ago, and a group of players showed up at a diner afterward with their championship medals around their necks.

Suddenly, the other customers in the diner — a majority of them Westport residents — stood up and spontaneously gave the players a standing ovation. The players beamed.

“They’re going to remember that the rest of their lives,” Woog said. “They felt like kings. That’s not going to happen in the academy.”

Anyone who follows top level soccer knows that Division I college coaches and Olympic Development talent scouts have long ago stopped looking first at high school teams as the source for future players and have focused instead on Development Academy teams.  Perhaps the Federation’s policy change merely reflects that reality.  But the Federation’s sin lies in the notion that an 11-year-old boy will have to make such a choice:  school or country.