Countryside High School’s Jeff George walked off the soccer field eight months ago fully expecting to return for his senior season and help his team to another extended playoff run.
But George’s high school career is finished after he opted to play a year-round schedule with his developmental club team.
“I wanted to play both, but I had to choose,” George said. “I decided to play with my club team because it is more beneficial to me becoming a better player and getting a better opportunity to play in college and maybe professionally someday.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation this year has moved its Development Academy boys teams from a seven-month to 10-month schedule — September through June — a shift in direct conflict with the high school soccer season that starts in a few weeks, as well as pretty much all other high school sports.
The move was deemed necessary by U.S. Soccer to accelerate the development of youth players, but it is forcing the most talented boys prospects to choose between playing for their academy or high school team.
The Development Academy was created in 2007 to provide youth players with training on a European-based model — more practices, fewer games and a greater emphasis on technical skill. Competition comes from within the 78 academy teams, which include two in the bay area — the Clearwater Chargers and Bradenton’s IMG Soccer Academy. The focus is on three mandatory training sessions a week in addition to one weekly game.
The expanded academy schedule affects about 4,000 of roughly 400,000 boys who play high school soccer nationwide. But the biggest concern area high school coaches have is that other elite club programs will try to adopt the year-round model.
“This decision by U.S. Soccer is creating a chain reaction,” said Palm Harbor University coach Alex Delgado, whose Hurricanes reached the state semifinals last season. “I’m already losing three of my strongest returning players to academy soccer. And from what I’m hearing from my other players, they are being asked to play strictly for their club team.
“If that happens, I’m going to lose about 80 percent of my starting lineup. It’s something that is completely changing the landscape of high school soccer.”
There are exemptions for private school players on athletic scholarships. They are allowed to play both prep and club sports as long as they show their club written proof of their scholarship.
There is no development academy for girls, so players do not have to choose — yet. But the tug-of-war between girls club teams and high school programs has started. In Central Florida, the Orlando City Youth Soccer Club is forbidding its 14- to 18-under players in the Elite Clubs National League from playing in high school.
For years, high school and club teams enjoyed a peaceful coexistence. But the emergence of top amateur clubs and their participation in elite showcase events draw the interest of college coaches, who find an attractive option on their limited budget to watch — and recruit — players at one event.
This is the first time a federation of a major sport has banned members from playing scholastically.
“The 10-month season is something we discussed from the beginning of the academy program,” said Neil Buethe, senior director of communications for the U.S. Soccer Federation. “We decided to wait, but this was something driven by our membership. With the 10-month season, players can focus more on training and play meaningful games year-round.”
Critics say many players are losing out on the leadership training and social interaction high school soccer provides.
“High school soccer is popular, especially in this area,” said Gaither coach Eric Sims, also the executive director of Tampa United. “They get a lot of things out of it that they don’t get from club soccer, in terms of playing for your school, press and things like that. (Are club and development academies) better for the players? Probably from a soccer standpoint, but … high school soccer provides a lot of things from a social (aspect) and relating with other people and leadership that club may or may not necessarily provide.”
And prep soccer can still help a player land a college scholarship.
Land O’Lakes coach Mark Pearson said two of his four players who signed with colleges last year, Jake Frahm and Nathan Dalton, played for the Clearwater Chargers. But Dalton’s recruiting process was slow until Jacksonville University coaches saw him compete for Land O’Lakes in the Class 3A state championship against Plantation American Heritage.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to cut off opportunities for those kids to get noticed,” said Pearson, who also works with the Central Pasco United Soccer Association.
According to the National Federation of High School Associations, participation among boys playing soccer at the high school level went from 78,000 in 1971 to 400,000, making it the fifth-most popular sport. But the new 10-month season with development academies could derail that growth.
“U.S. Soccer is trying to adopt the year-round, sell-yourself-out approach that exists in the majority of countries in the world,” NFHS executive director Robert B. Gardiner and president Rick Wulcow said in a statement. “Obviously, we are extremely disappointed with this ruling by U.S. Soccer, particularly given the fact that our schools have attempted to coexist.”
Even though he won’t be playing, George still plans to attend Countryside games.
“I’m friends with most of the guys on the team,” he said. “I would have liked to play high school. It’s fun and it’s more community related. You get to play for your school and in front of your friends. I imagine that’s what it would be like in college.”
Staff writers Matt Baker and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caption: Land O'Lakes' Nathan Dalton got a boost to his recruitment when the Gators reached the state championship game and coaches from Jacksonville University saw him play.