U.S. youth soccer: Is it best to play in high school, or on an academy team?

D.C. United photo/1999 photo by Gabriel Luis Acosta/San Bernadino Sun - Landon Donovan, right, played for his high school’s team before going on to lead the U.S. national team in the World Cup. Gar-Field High student Dario Redondo, left, played for D.C. United Academy during his senior year instead of the Indians.

Earlier this month in Woodbridge, one of the area’s top soccer players, Dario Redondo, sat in the stands watching No. 7 Gar-Field High School, a team for which he used to star, cruise to a 5-0 win.

One night later in Fairfax, Langley forward Josh Ellis charged from the top of the box as a blocked penalty kick rebounded into the area and smacked the ball into the net, helping lead the second-ranked Saxons to a 3-0 win in the district playoffs.

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Some of the area's most talented soccer players talk about the choices they make between playing for their club, academy or high school teams.

Some of the area's most talented soccer players talk about the choices they make between playing for their club, academy or high school teams.

Both Ellis and Redondo are a part of D.C. United Academy, an elite soccer program established by the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2007. With their senior seasons approaching, however, they chose different paths for the final months of their high school careers: Redondo decided to play solely for D.C. United, while Ellis chose to balance his academy and high school schedules.

That decision may not be in the hands of high school-aged players much longer.

Four years ago, the USSF formed a league for elite youth soccer teams to develop better players and streamline what had become a jumbled system of club teams, summer development leagues and the Olympic Development Program. Now, more and more clubs in the U.S. Development Academy league are insisting that their players forgo their high school teams completely.

The movement pits those who believe training with elite clubs is the best route for developing international-caliber players against others who say the trend could undermine a uniquely American tradition in which the best athletes compete alongside their classmates for their high school teams.

“Since soccer is a really big sport here in the U.S., kids who play soccer think it’s fun here to play for their school,” said Ellis, a native of Sweden. “People come to watch you, your friends. For that reason I think it’s fun to play high school. At the same time, academy improves you as a player, takes you places, polishes you.”

In April, academy teams in Southern California switched from a seven-month to a 10-month season that will prohibit players from playing high school soccer. Academy teams in the Pacific Northwest and Texas followed suit.

The expectation is for the local academy clubs — D.C. United, Potomac and McLean — to eventually fall in line with what U.S. Soccer believes will become a nationwide standard.

McLean Academy technical director Zach Samol said it is “inevitable and it should be from a pure soccer standpoint, but it’s going to be hard in this area when it happens.” D.C. United General Manager Dave Kasper, whose club operates and finances the youth academy team, said he believes the transition will happen within one to two years.

There is a universal belief among those deeply entrenched in the higher levels of the sport that the academy is an important step, both in the individual development of players and the enhancement of Major League Soccer and the U.S. national pool. There is a distinct divide, though, among those same voices as to whether the academy can and should coexist with high school soccer.

“In top footballing nations, school soccer is not where the top players play and develop,” said Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. youth national teams and a technical adviser for the Development Academy. “That’s how this has evolved and how this shift has continued. . . .We’ve given the choice to the clubs. It’s not a mandate yet, but we totally get why they’re choosing that and that’s why we’re supporting it.”

Among those who say the academy system can function alongside high school soccer and still produce top players is University of Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski, who has won two NCAA national championships with lineups made up of players who have played for their schools. “We try to be too much like the rest of the world,” Cirovski said. “We have to find the American way, and the American way is always going to involve education.”

To those within the sport, the debate over high school and club soccer — one that has been waged for decades — lies in the technical aspects of a game that club coaches say demands high-level, year-round training.

The belief is that the training environment and level of play can significantly affect development. The prevailing thought among academy backers is that because high school soccer brings together players of different levels, those who also participate in higher-level soccer with an academy or club will suffer by playing alongside less-skilled players on the high school field. They also maintain that high school teams play too many games, which is counter to the academy philosophy of more training and fewer games.

Supporters of the high school game point to the current U.S. national pool and the number of players who played not only high school soccer, but other sports as well.

Taylor Twellman, one of the most prolific goal scorers in MLS history and a former U.S. national team forward, played four sports in high school and quit his club soccer team so that he could play multiple sports.

“There’s no denying if you play U.S. Development Academy, the coaching, fields, players surrounding you is going to be better, but is that ultimately the goal of life?” said Twellman, who played at Maryland. “I don’t know if that trade-off is worth it, but I understand U.S. Soccer’s best opportunity is to get the area’s best players together to train together. I understand that argument, but what is the sacrifice?”

Examples of teams and players affected can be seen at schools across the Washington region.

Kody Palmer, a goalkeeper at Westfield last season, and Mikias Eticha, who starred for Stuart a year ago, are not playing for their high schools this year. Both are on D.C. United Academy’s U-18 roster. Forward Andrew Panknen’s attempt to balance his commitment to both D.C. United Academy and Yorktown this season has proven difficult to manage, and he has played only a handful of games for the school. D.C. United Academy players such as Ellis and Madison midfielder Dan Traxler, however, have played throughout the season for their high schools.

D.C United Academy Coach Tom Torres, a former high school coach at Westfield, believes what may make the transition from a seven- to 10-month season more difficult in this area is the impact on private schools like DeMatha, which recruit many of the area’s top players.

The change to a mandate would affect only a small percentage of the area’s players, though they are among the most elite. Academy pools include 45 to 50 players across age groups, meaning the rule changes would impact about 150 players from the area. Even if the change is made, players will still have the option of playing for non-Academy club teams.

“For D.C. United it’s an issue we wrestle with every year,” Kasper said. “We’re getting kids who are missing practices, getting kids who are forced with choices. . . . We’re not getting half the time [European clubs] are to develop these players. And it’s a challenge.”

One thing few debate is that the Academy is a major step forward in the development and identification of higher-level players for MLS and the U.S. national team.

D.C. United started three former Academy players — Andy Najar, Bill Hamid and Ethan White — in several games this season, and has signed a fourth, Conor Shanosky.

MLS teams have signed 26 Academy products since its inception, and Lepore said that more than 30 others are now playing professionally in Mexico or overseas.

The model more closely resembles the European system and fast tracks promising young prospects into the professional environment and national team pool. D.C. United has specifically studied the system of famed Dutch club Ajax, which is widely considered as the standard in elite youth development.

Previously the U.S. system has had one residential academy in Bradenton, Fla., for the elite young players who had been identified.

“Our system is developing good players but we’re not developing enough good players and enough international stars,” Kasper said. “Talking about players who can go into Spain, who can go into the top clubs in England and be a star. We don’t have any players like that. We have players that can do well and have successful careers in Europe, but a nation as big as the United States, as advanced as we are, we’re still behind in world soccer.”

 
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