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U.S. Soccer Federation: Academy team members not allowed to play for high schools

The soccer facility is just off Route 202, near where the Schuylkill Expressway meets the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The very best teenage soccer players in eastern Pennsylvania used all those roads one recent evening to get there for a two-hour practice under the lights.

FC Delco leading scorer George Tsirukis will not be playing for his high school team this fall. (Elizabeth Robertson/Staff Photographer)
FC Delco leading scorer George Tsirukis will not be playing for his high school team this fall. (Elizabeth Robertson/Staff Photographer)Read more

The soccer facility is just off Route 202, near where the Schuylkill Expressway meets the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The very best teenage soccer players in eastern Pennsylvania used all those roads one recent evening to get there for a two-hour practice under the lights.

They came from Wallingford and York and Holland, from Doylestown, Dresher and Downingtown.

These boys are an all-star team of sorts - by any estimation the best collection of teenage soccer players in a large and sprawling region. But this is no paper all-star team. Players on the U.S. Development Academy under-18 and under-16 teams at FC Delco are together eight months a year - and it's about to be 10 months.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has decided high school soccer is an impediment to America catching up with the rest of the world. As a result, FC Delco will not let its players play for their high school teams.

The federation has told its top layer of clubs to begin playing fall soccer against other academies. No more high school ball for these players, with few exceptions. There are 78 of these academies nationally that must follow the federation's directive.

So, how does one measure the propriety of this mandate?

There are only 50 or so players from the region who play for FC Delco's two upper-age academy teams, and they and their families are the ones who would make the decision to forgo high school soccer for academy soccer.

But these same players - some of whom can pay up to $5,000 to $6,000 to belong to the academy - are being told they can no longer represent their high schools, play in front of schoolmates and friends, and work with familiar coaches. Given their talent, a qualitative drop-off for their schools and for soccer at that level is inevitable.

Imagine if Kobe Bryant and Rasheed Wallace never played high school basketball, or if the top two players at Chester or Neumann-Goretti high schools were skimmed off every season.

U.S. Soccer Federation officials point out that this rule will affect less than 1 percent of high school soccer players. Critics argue that an equally small fraction of these academy players will go on to professional careers.

Mike Barr, director of coaching at the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association and the former coach at Strath Haven High School, said taking this pool of players away from high school soccer would, in essence, end the "last community-based soccer" for the top tier of players.

"The media covers high school soccer," Barr said. "Families get enthused. It could erode the following we have."

Locally, the ramifications could be significant. One soccer coach at a local private school, who asked that he not be named, already told an FC Delco coach he won't be recruiting any more players from the club's younger age groups.

The top goal-scorer on FC Delco's 16-year-old team, George Tsirukis of Bethlehem, has told his high school Moravian Academy that he won't be playing for the school team in the fall. He'd rather play for the school team, he said, but given the academy mandate, his decision was an easy one.

"If I played, I'd compromise my spot on the [FC Delco] team, I'm sure," said Tsirukis, who is being recruited by schools such as Duke and Boston College. "I wouldn't want to do that."

The captain of FC Delco's 18-year-old team, Harrison Kendall, is glad that he is a senior at the Haverford School - headed to play soccer at Syracuse University in the fall - and wasn't forced to make a choice.

"Academy soccer is very serious soccer," Kendall said. "It's non-stop. It's always serious, always competitive. And high school soccer is different."

Kendall, who lives in Narberth, describes high school soccer this way: "You're playing in front of your friends, in front of girls, and so forth. There's so much involved in playing high school soccer. It's just something you have to experience. And there's more bragging rights on the line.

"It's not the best soccer. It's a different type of soccer. It's more social. And it's fun."

However, giving up the academy and playing some other form of club soccer in addition to high school soccer would hurt a player's development, Kendall said.

"It's always competitive," Kendall said of FC Delco. "When you go on a road trip on the weekend, you're playing against the best players in the country, no doubt."

And his college recruiting came from academy play, Kendall said.

"Really, any academy player will look very good on a high school stage," Kendall said. "When you move to the academy, you can see a true soccer player. I think that's what the college coaches look for."

The academies now are in their fifth season and generally are considered a success, replacing the old Olympic Development state teams, which were, in fact, more like all-star teams, with more limited opportunities to get together.

FC Delco, which has the two academy teams but also traditional soccer programs for boys and girls of various ages, is getting the best players. Three of the four high school juniors who were named to The Inquirer's all-Southeastern Pennsylvania first team play for the academy, which plans to move into a new facility in Conshohocken next year. They now use a variety of soccer complexes for training.

Federation officials say the United States needs to catch up to top soccer-playing nations by providing a higher-level technical environment at an earlier age. Expect soccer officials to use the recent failure of the U.S. under-23 national team to qualify for the Olympics as more evidence. The academy system now includes 78 boys' teams nationwide, with two age-group teams (17-18 and 15-16). More than 3,000 players participate.

Few dispute this academy system is the best devised for technical improvement. The national federation's logic then is that if eight months of this are good, 10 months are better, and a high school season often represents a regression for the most talented players.

Within the national federation's mandate, however, there will be a "transition" period, and academy organizers talk of having "private-school exemptions," realizing that in some regions, including this one, athletic ability often is a factor for students recruited by private schools. Not being able to attend certain schools could adversely impact college decisions.

Along these lines, FC Delco plans to allow four players to play high school soccer and return for the following spring season at the academy, at least for the next year.

"In the inaugural year, they've allowed some wiggle room to make things go a little more smoothly," said FC Delco's Alan Mezger, who coaches the 17-18 squad.

U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a former German national team superstar who has lived in Southern California for many years, didn't devise the system, but he has endorsed it.

"If we want our players to some day compete against the best in the world, it is critical for their development that they train and play as much as possible and in the right environment," Klinsmann said in a statement when the plan was unveiled earlier this year. "The Development Academy 10-month season is the right formula and provides a good balance between training time and playing competitive matches."

"The academy is not for everyone," said Tony Lepore, director of scouting for the youth national teams and technical adviser for the academies. "It's for the most committed and the most talented."

Considering that most of the top youth players in Southeastern Pennsylvania have joined the academy system, this is a new and dramatic fault line in the ongoing club vs. high school athletic debates, which have percolated for years across many sports.

The Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association, consisting mostly of high school coaches, has said it "strongly opposes this position." It also declared that athletics "is an integral part of the educational experience."

Bill Brady, soccer coach at the Haverford School, said the academy system, now in its fifth year, has been a positive in developing and training players. But Brady, a former college coach at Division I St. Bonaventure University and Division III Haverford College, added that by taking top players completely out of the high school system, "you tear away at the fabric of the country."

Brett Campbell, the Gatorade state player of the year in Pennsylvania as a junior at the Haverford School, intends to play for his school this fall. Because of his ability, he will be allowed to do so by FC Delco. He'll be one of the four exceptions allowed this first year. Campbell didn't worry about the issue so much, he said, because he already has committed to play college soccer at Georgetown.

The advantage of the academy?

"[It's] faster, kids are technically better. That improves you as a player," Campbell said.

This mandate hasn't caught anybody within the system by surprise.

"We'd already told our parents and our players this is coming down the road," Mezger said.

Painting this as a war between laid-back high school systems and hyper-competitive academies isn't entirely accurate, said Mezger, a former Radnor High School coach.

Mezger, who still teaches social studies at Radnor High, didn't devise the new "no high school" system - and wouldn't have, he makes clear. He does point out that high school competition, especially in playoff season, can cause wear and tear for players.

"We get these kids sometimes who are just wrecked - they've got to survive one more game to get that district title," Mezger said. "Some play, like, 28 games in 21/2 months. It's absurd."

Mezger has no doubt, he said, that playing for academies such as FC Delco has been beneficial for players up and down the roster, helped by mandates that each player starts 25 percent of the time.

Mezger said a great number of his players play for experienced and knowledgeable high school coaches, that there "is value" for such players in playing high school soccer. But there are plenty of times, he said, when top players also will find themselves on a field that's hardly been mowed - intentionally, to slow them down - or in non-competitive matches.

FC Delco is the academy for this area. The closest others are near Harrisburg and Somerset, N.J. Most of the more talented South Jersey youth players currently play for top travel clubs that are outside of the academy system. Major League Soccer clubs, including the Union, also have developmental academies that overlap the federation academies, using some of the same players and sharing facilities. There is no fee for playing for the Union academy team.

Brady, the Haverford School coach, said that of the 25 best players in this area, "maybe three or four maximum will have a chance to go on and play professional soccer, maybe."

"If other sports take this approach, you'll never have dual-sports athletes," said Barr, the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association coaching director, who believes that youth soccer has created many problems because the travel-team system has been copied by so many other sports.

"You're eliminating kids from playing other sports and other activities. You're eliminating the whole experience of going to high school."

Barr argues that for the majority of academies that still charge, the costs over the years exceed the financial benefits of a partial college scholarship, and pay-for-play systems at any level, including the ones he is part of at Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association, exclude a talented pool of players who can't afford travel expenses.

"They're trying to widen the net to get one or two fishes," Barr said of the USSF's goal of identifying talent. "You're really narrowing the net when your sport is appealing to an upper-income population."

The mandate covers the 17-18-year-old team and the separate 15-16-year-old team. But discussions are being held on the national level to add academy teams to younger age groups, also with a "no-school" mandate.

Mezger said "80 percent" of the players on FC Delco's 14-year-old team played fall soccer for the club, which isn't part of the formal academy system yet. Many of them already don't play for their school team.

"We're trying to get them used to it before they hit the high school," Mezger said.