Last month, Countryside High School goalkeeper Danny George reached the pinnacle of his prep career, helping his team advance to the Class 6A state final four.
George, a junior, knew there was pressure to win because it was the last go-round for many of his graduating teammates. And he believed it could be the farewell to his high school career.
George is contemplating forgoing his senior season to play year-round with the Clearwater Chargers, an elite amateur program that draws players from around the bay area but in the past suspended practices during the high school season.
Now club programs are considering a schedule with fewer breaks, so when the 2011-12 high school season rolls around, players who compete at both levels could have a choice to make.
"If it comes down to it," George said, "this might be my last year with Countryside. High school soccer is just not as important."
This is the tug-of-war that bay area high school and club programs are involved in.
"It's a constant battle," said St. Petersburg coach Rui Farias, who has coached at the club level in the past. "Each year, you have to convince kids of the benefits of playing high school soccer."
For years, high school and club boys soccer 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 rather than hopping from one school to another.
"Club soccer allows elite players an avenue to be seen," said Clearwater Chargers president Rob O'Nan, whose club was founded in 1975. "High school soccer is not well-recruited. I wish it were different, but this isn't like football or baseball where colleges come to watch players at high school games. About 90 percent of college coaches recruit at the club level."
Because of the success rate, players started focusing more on club, with some spurning high school teams altogether.
Chad Burt was one of them.
The Northeast High graduate concentrated on club with Strictly Soccer in St. Petersburg. He went on to play at the University of Tampa and is a midfielder for FC Tampa Bay (formerly the Rowdies).
"There are always going to be kids who want to play high school, to be able to play for their school, but it's (backward)," said Burt, now a coach with Strictly Soccer who encourages his kids to bypass high school soccer. "High school coaches don't want you to play club. Club coaches don't want you to play high school. Every year they wanted me to play high school, but it didn't do anything for me."
Then came sweeping changes in club soccer, foretelling an entirely different game.
In 2007, U.S. Soccer created a national development academy to provide the best 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 academy teams. The focus is on three mandatory training sessions a week in addition to only one weekly game. If clubs decide to enforce these sessions during the high school season, players are bound to miss practices and games with their respective prep teams — assuming high school coaches will even allow for their absences.
"There has been talk of adding more practices during the high school season with our academy team," said senior Jagger Martinez, a Northwestern commit who plays for the Chargers and was a midfielder on Countryside's state team. "No one is saying that you can't do both, but it would make it really tough."
There are two developmental academy programs in the area: the Clearwater Chargers and Bradenton's IMG Soccer Academy.
"There has never been a hard-and-fast rule by U.S. Soccer that states kids in the development academy cannot play high school soccer," O'Nan said. "Some clubs implement their own rule about that. We will always allow players to participate in both."
Still, some area coaches fear the development academy's presence will encourage youngsters to abandon long-established high school programs. Why risk burnout and injuries by playing both?
But they don't see high school teams giving up elite players without a fight.
"I think it's going to be a tough battle fighting against high school soccer because the kids really enjoy it," said Gaither High coach Eric Sims, also the general manager of HC United in Tampa. "There's a big sense of pride in playing for your high school, and in high school you get your name in the paper a lot more. It's more a popularity thing at school. …
"I don't see how you can tell a kid he cannot play high school soccer as long as the schedules don't conflict and stuff like that. … There's a lot of pride in high school soccer in this area for sure."
Staff writers Eduardo A. Encina and Joey Knight contributed to this report.