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Boys' soccer: Breaking down controversy with Development Academy

July 12, 2008 | 10:55 am

The U.S. Soccer Federation's Development Academy kicks off today at the Home Depot Center, and high school soccer coaches still haven't forgotten what the U.S. Soccer Federation did to them. What did they do? Read on.

When the U.S. Soccer Federation came up with the concept of a national league of the best youth clubs, the federation thought it had scored a goal with the Development Academy.  However, in Southern California at least, it has been more of a penalty kick that gets denied by a goalkeeper.

The Controversy

At the center of the issue is scheduling. Most of the teams in the academy, if not all, play their games around their state's high school season. But in California, academy teams have the option of playing games during high school season, so the club teams can also play in the Coast Soccer Premier League  (which, as one club coach told me, "is the biggest, most powerful [club] league in, I would dare say, the country").

Why did the USSF give clubs that option? Because, according to multiple club coaches interviewed this week, the CSL had threatened to ban them from their league if they left for the academy. The CSL offers more age groups than the academy, which offers only two (under-15/16 and under-17/18).

So to calm club coaches who were freaking out, the U.S. Soccer Federation came up with a solution: To give clubs the option of playing games during the CSL season or the high school soccer season.

"That's basically the arrangement that we have allowed in this situation," said the director of the development academy, John Hackworth, who talked a lot about the positives of high school sports.

A coach who did not want to be identified for this story told me the USSF could have stepped in said no to the compromise but because it does a lot of business with CSL decided not to.

The effects of the academy

Even though the premise of the academy is to focus on the development of soccer skills and not on winning, the clubs wanted to have their best players for this inaugural season of the academy. That meant convincing players to not play for their high school teams.

St. Francis boys' soccer Coach Glen Appels, who lost four players, including three to LAFC, said club coaches were comparing playing high school soccer to career suicide.

"The clubs would say, 'feel free not to [play in the academy] and ruin your career,' " Appels said. " 'If you don't take soccer seriously then play for your high school.' "

Appels talked to one mother who was literally in tears, he said, because of the stress the situation was causing her family.

"I hope that the two [academy and high school soccer] can find a way to co-exist," Appels added. "Let the kids get the best of both worlds."

Which offers more exposure?

The academy offers exposure to national team coaches and a national audience -- as evidenced by the finals being televised on ESPN2 and ESPNU -- but does it offer more exposure to colleges? One college coach said no.

Cal State Fullerton's Bob Ammann said he will not stop recruiting players that play with their high school because of the start of the academy.

Ammann, who attended last season's CIF Southern Section championship games at Warren High School, said his opinion is different from those of some of his colleagues (who "feel that we need to get rid of high school soccer altogether," Ammann said).

"You're not just out looking for talent, you're for the overall person," Ammann said. "When you just see a person in a certain environment you don't get the overall picture."

Cal State Fullerton has an incoming class of 13 players, four of whom participated in the academy. One of the  incoming players Ammann is most hopeful about is forward Nick Posthuma, who played for Appels at St. Francis last season.

The cost of playing in the academy

Some clubs have benefited from private sponsorship and the cost of traveling hasn't been that hard on the kids. Not so for other clubs.

The number that is most commonly tossed around is $7,000 per kid. That's on top of regular club fees, which can sometimes top $10,000.

"The traveling is a huge issue," said Paul Clifton, general manager of Real SoCal, one of the better-off and best-known clubs in the country. "The cost of it all, the cost-effectiveness of it all is something that needs to be looked at.

"They want us to support all the players individually, which is pretty unrealistic."

Next season's schedule

Hackworth, who's also assistant coach on the U.S. national team, said the academy schedule for next season has already been drafted and that the California high school season was taken into account.

There might be hope yet, right? Wrong.

Academy teams in the Southern California conference will likely request changes to the schedule -- and the changes, just as in this season, will result in academy games being played during high school season again.

“If we didn’t have to play CSL, and it was just high school, I think we would do that," said LAFC director Rafa Moran, whose U-15/16 and U-17/18 clubs are in the academy finals this week.

Such is the power of the CSL, which, in case, appears to be more powerful than the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Strange, I know.

-- Jaime Cardenas