With a little bit of luck, South Lakes junior Suli Dainkeh can make the trip from RFK Stadium to Reston in about 45 minutes, getting from his D.C. United Academy practice to his high school soccer game right around kickoff. If not, it’s bumper-to-bumper on Interstate 66 and Dainkeh will be lucky to make the first half.
It’s not an easy 25-mile trip for a 16-year-old, but it’s one Dainkeh and a handful of area players are willing to make to play one final season of high school soccer. In February, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that the U.S. Development Academy, the top level of youth soccer that includes the D.C. United Academy, will switch from a seven- to a 10-month season and will not allow players to compete for high schools.
“It’s a lot of money [on gas] but I feel like it’s worth it,” Dainkeh said. “It’s fun to play with your friends at school and that you grew up with and enjoy it.”
The federation’s rule changes, which take effect in September, will affect only a small percentage of D.C. area players, though they are among the most elite. Three area academy team pools — McLean, Potomac and United — include about 50 players across age groups, meaning the rule changes would impact about 150 players locally.
D.C. United academy teams practice four times a week — the under-18 teams from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and under-16 teams from 6 to 7:30 — with mandatory practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For players like Dainkeh, who are balancing high school and academy commitments, that means regular commutes from academy practices in Southeast Washington to high school games around the Northern Virginia area.
The journeys vary in distance and frustration. Traffic is hit or miss. Robinson senior Ryan Harmouche, a George Mason recruit, said he sometimes risks taking the HOV-3 lane on 395 South to make a game on time. The drive isn’t as much of a grind for W.T. Woodson goalkeeper Carlos Canas, who can avoid the highways from Fairfax and often sits in the passenger seat while his mother drives him. “She’s doing me a big favor,” he said.
West Springfield senior Jannik Eckenrode sat through a nightmarish 90-minute drive through rush hour on his way to a game against Madison last month. Eckenrode pulled into the first parking space he saw after arriving at the Vienna school, hopped the stadium fence and rushed toward the Spartans’ bench.
Just 20 minutes remained and the game was tied. The All-Met midfielder, a Radford commit, warmed up briefly and entered the match. With two minutes left in the game, Eckenrode scored the game-winning goal.
“Shuttling back and forth from D.C. to games further away, it’s kind of a pain,” Eckenrode said. “But those little things make it so worth it.”
Legg and Hamdan both opted to dedicate themselves to the high school season, according to their respective coaches, Jon Hicks and Randy May. Robinson has arranged to miss training on game days. In one instance this season when he tried to get back in time to play, the 36-mile drive from D.C. to Montclair, took too long. By the time Robinson got to the field, only a few seconds remained on the game clock.
“At first I thought I was going to do the back-and-forth thing,” Robinson said. “It would have been way too hard to do that. I just had to make the decision not to go that direction.”
McLean academy players have had less conflict during the high school season because practices have been more limited as McLean teams do not play games until June. Maryland public high schools and area private schools play soccer in the fall.
Players said their high school teammates have been understanding of the last-second arrivals to games. But things haven’t always gone perfectly.
“A bunch of my teammates were like, ‘Why did you bring the best player on the other team?’ ” Dainkeh said.
The carpools with opponents and last-second arrivals might not be ideal, players said, but it’s worth it for one last season of high school soccer.
“I’m not going to have a senior night like everybody else, which will hurt,” Dainkeh said. “So I just wanted to do it this year and not regret not being able to play with my friends.”