Monday, July 25, 2011

USSDA takes High School vs. Club debate to new level

From the Evansville Courier Press, July 24, 2011

There has always been a 'High School versus Club' debate between groups on both sides of the discussion of the best place for young soccer players to ply their trade, but a recent initiative from US Soccer could escalate this debate to all new heights.

The United States Soccer Development Academy is the top league in the US for the Under-15 through Under-18 age groups, and has a limited number of teams across the country. There are 79 clubs that have been selected for USSDA Academy status, with boy's teams that compete in both the 15/16 and 17/18 age groups. Indiana has one team in the Academy- Indiana United- which is based in Indianapolis. Each Major League Soccer team has youth academies in the USSDA, and the Under-15 and Under-17 national teams are comprised primarily from players off USSDA teams.

Many believe that the USSDA has replaced the Olympic Development Program (ODP) as a true developmental model for boys here in the United States- giving the top youth players the opportunity to play with and against the top players and teams in the country.

A new wrinkle potentially being posed by US Soccer is the concept of a 10-month season which would start earlier than in years past, and run through the entire Fall- overlapping the Fall High School season. There are other parts of the country that do not play High School soccer in the Fall- Texas and Florida play in the Winter; Georgia, Tennessee and California play in the Spring. Most USSDA divisions have taken High school seasons into account when creating their schedules, which are very regional- avoiding overlaps with High School.

If this new initiative does come into affect, top youth players could be potentially asked to choose between playing for their school and their club.

I have had the opportunity to speak with coaches and administrators from both factions, and there are some serious challenges with this figurative line being drawn in the sand.

US Soccer officials look at the player development models in other parts of the world, and deem that to catch us up with the other top nations that we need to have our top youth players competing under higher demands for longer periods of time throughout the calendar year; attempting to do so with high school soccer being included leads to overtraining and playing, with bodies being taxed with both high school and USSDA matches coinciding with each other.

High School soccer advocates will point to the values that are developed in the school game that just can't be replicated in youth soccer- lessons that transcend sport like being a part of something bigger than yourself while representing a player's school, town and community.

This hits home here in Evansville specifically- I travel all over the United States, and outside of maybe the St. Louis metropolitan area, I have never seen another part of the country where high school soccer is as prestigious in it's community as we have here in Evansville.

This initiative will not 'kill' High School soccer- there are enough players at schools and enough prestige with the idea of representing your own school that there will always be a place for High School soccer (the same critics of the high school game usually share the same opinion that our top young American players should skip college and go straight into the pro ranks).

Saying that, 5 of the top boys high school players from Evansville played in the USSDA last year between teams based in Indianapolis and St. Louis/Collinsville- pulling them out of their high school teams would have significantly affected the standard of the high school game in Evansville last season. That is where this could potentially hurt the high school game the most.

We have never seen a challenge like this posed to youth soccer players in our country before- without the opportunity to potentially play both high school and in the USSDA, the very few players in each community that fall into that category will be asked to choose- or rather, have their opportunity to choose taken from them (it would be either/or if this initiative does come into effect).

I see a definite benefit for the opportunity for our top youth players to be able to play both high school and for the US Soccer Development Academy or in other club teams. The reality is that if you take the best of both- offering the chance to represent your town or school, playing more important playoff-type games (in high school) coupled with the opportunity to pit the best players with/against each other under higher training and game conditions (USSDA or club), you have, well, college soccer.

The combination of both of those settings most resembles the college game. Where very few players will realistically move onto the professional ranks directly from high school or USSDA, the reality is that a steady diet of both could help prepare players for the collegiate level- which is where 99% of the players from these programs should be aspiring to go.

I see benefits to both high school soccer and the mission of the United States Soccer Development Academy, and hope that they can find a way to coexist.

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