First Touch Soccer Academy owner, Rob Leather, will be writing quarterly newsletters in the area of youth soccer with the goal of helping parents and players navigate some of the challenges they face when making decisions that impact the development of their child. In the first newsletter Rob will discuss the High School vs Academy decision that many top male players nationwide have to make every season.
In 2007 the United States Soccer Federation founded the Boys Development Academy (USSF DA), selecting 80 clubs to participate in this elite format. The rationale was to mimic global approaches to player development of 12 month seasons, four times a week practices, and one game on a weekend. National soccer officials goal was to implement a structure that would allow the countries talent to develop at a greater rate, and spawn world class players, elevating the national team to a level where they could compete for a World Cup. In 2011 the USSF DA enacted a policy that banned players from representing their High School in competition, forcing thousands of players nationally to choose between club and community. In 2017 the USSF founded a Girls Development Academy, with the same rules applying to female players regarding High School participation. In 2020, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, the USSF DA collapsed citing financial pressure caused by the Covid outbreak. Youth Soccer in this country no longer had a league that was organized by the sports National Governing Body. Many of the female players filtered back to the Elite Club National League (ECNL), who’s rules did not include banning High School participation, thus allowing the country's top talent to still represent their communities. However on the boys side the MLS NEXT league was formed, governed by the nations professional clubs, maintaining prior rules around High School play. So to this day the top boys players in NJ, and beyond, are faced with the decision to play for their Academy program, or their High School.
This newsletter would be too long to argue as to the validity of this rule and how it is implemented. The US National Team are currently ranked 11th in the FIFA rankings but it could be argued they are no closer to truly competing at the top level of the international game. However it could also be argued that there are increasing numbers of players plying their trade in Europe, who developed their game in the USSF DA and MLS NEXT structure. There is also an argument that the level of consistent play in the Academy set up has elevated the Collegiate game and thus the continued growth of another sector of player outside the professional ranks. These assumptions are subjective however and it is very difficult to truly state whether the initial goal in 2007 of producing enough world class talent nationally to compete at the top end of international tournaments has materialized.
This perspective however is of little relevance to families and players who are faced with the decision of choosing Academy or High School. I have personally lived in both worlds and on both sides of the decision. From 2010-2014 I was the Director of Coaching for Match Fit Academy, one of the initial 80 clubs chosen by the USSF DA. One of my jobs was to present the benefits of year round academy play vs choosing to play High School soccer. From 2014-present one of my coaching roles is the Head Boys Soccer Coach at Montclair Kimberley Academy where I have a number of MLS NEXT level players in the school who I want to represent my program. In 2011 the USSF DA allowed clubs a certain number of ‘waivers’ to allow players to represent their High School program. That policy ceased with the MLS NEXT league but there are still gray areas in terms of whether players are truly outlawed from representing their High Schools. This newsletter will aim to give parents and players advice and tips when navigating this dilemma.
Firstly, it is important to understand the pro’s and con’s of Academy vs High School participation. The benefits of High School participation certainly lie in the social aspect, and a sense of belonging in a community that a player feels when representing their school. In ten and fifteen years time when classes gather for reunions some of these memories are timeless. The bonds that players have with one another in a High School team in my experience are greater than those created in a club environment. It is absolutely possible in a club environment but with the amount of turnover on rosters the continuity of relationship is often not there. There is something special about representing your educational institution and town. It is difficult to quantify the benefit to a players self worth, self confidence and overall mental wellbeing when they are completely committed and enthralled with a common goal involving their closest friends. As players develop they are also exposed to transformative leadership opportunities if they are asked to captain a program, where they are able to mentor the next wave of local talent.
It is also important to note that playing High School soccer does not preclude a player from finding a club program that will allow them to continue their growth and development. Nor does playing High School completely rule out the possibility of picking up with an MLS NEXT team in November. More on that later.
Although the social benefits cannot be understated there are some significant limitations to playing High School soccer. High School teams simply play too many games. Administrators at the state and national level do not seem to understand that asking a player to play in three games in a week is not physiologically possible. As High School seasons are truncated into in essence a ten week period everything is condensed. In NJ the preseason has been further condensed and this limits a coaches time to prepare players appropriately for the rigors ahead. Training sessions become recovery and film sessions and the season often becomes a war of attrition, rather than an appropriate periodization pathway. Efforts to eliminate overtime for tied games have fallen on deaf ears and that just adds to the minutes we are asking our players to compete in. Fatigue naturally leads to a greater risk of injury and in my personal experience I see a higher percentage of injury rate, specifically in soft tissue injuries, during High School season than in Club season. However it is important to note that players, in the majority of schools, have access to around the clock Athletic Trainers and facilities to manage their injuries that they may not receive in Academy soccer. For some players though the style of play, that can rely heavily on the physical pillars of the game, does not meet their goals of technical development. Risk of injury and potential developmental disadvantages could certainly be looked at when making a decision about participation.
The benefits of playing year round Academy soccer certainly lie in the developmental pathway that a player is able to follow. Parents and players put a lot of trust in the clubs and academies that foster their growth in the game. All MLS NEXT clubs will have a periodization model that looks to manage the volume, frequency and intensity of training. They are able to put on 3-4 training sessions a week, working on technical and tactical development, with the goal of preparing for one match day on the weekend. As much as the goal of the MLS NEXT league is to develop future professionals there is without doubt a vast percentage who simply want to play at the collegiate level. The professional approach to their training structure and load as a player has significant benefits. In addition, coaches are encouraged to follow certification that educates them in the game and allows players to potentially receive a higher level of instruction. That is not to say however that top quality coaches don’t exist at non MLS clubs, or in High School, but simply being affiliated with professional clubs allows MLS NEXT academies the connection to innovative coach education material. In High School coaches cases the limit is often the structure bestowed upon them by the governing bodies of the sport.
Although the developmental benefits are clear there is a cost associated with bypassing High School soccer and playing with an MLS NEXT club in the fall. I do not have data to support this thought but I would imagine that club fees are higher for those participating year round. Furthermore, weekly travel to league games in that time period brings associated travel costs. In addition, one of the ‘cons’ of playing fall MLS NEXT is that players simply miss out on all the benefits of High School soccer referenced above. Is it worth it to that player? The MLS NEXT leagues goal and philosophy is built around producing professional players. Are there really enough players at every age group, across six clubs, to support the notion that they are all working towards a professional contract. There is no doubt that 90-100% of players in the MLS and representing the USMNT were developed and nurtured in MLS NEXT (or old USSF DA) programs. However, what percentage of players giving up High School soccer are simply part of the system that allows for this outcome? It certainly leads to a thought that there is false hope and not enough players of the caliber to make it professionally. A counter argument would be that MLS NEXT clubs are simply providing a platform for players to maximize their talent, whether thats professional, home or overseas, or into top collegiate programs. Some players may value the more clinical approach to development than the tribal environment that is High School sports.
There is no clear directive as this is a personal choice and one that differs on a case by case basis. However there are some discussion points families can consider when faced with this delicate choice. Players and parents alike should not feel any pressure from either party in the decision they make. They should have comfort in asking questions, evaluating scenarios and gathering information that will help them make the best decision for them. It is clear that if your son is part of the Red Bulls or NYCFC Academy team then they can absolutely not play High School soccer. It would also be apparent that if they are in such a prestigious program that they are probably in the top percentile of players at their age group and could assess that they have a genuine shot at receiving a homegrown contract. I have a 10th grade student at my school right now who plays for NYCFC and I would never dream of telling him he was doing the wrong thing by skipping High School soccer. He is excelling at the club, starting in his position and making great strides as a player.
However for players in Non MLS Academies the situation is a little murkier. Are you able to play High School in the fall and then join back up with an MLS NEXT team in November? If you are one of the stronger players on the roster then the answer may be yes. That doesn’t make the situation equitable for all but the reality is that the MLS NEXT clubs want to win and are unlikely to sacrifice one of their best players if they do indeed wish to play High School soccer. Regardless, it is worth asking the question. All MLS NEXT clubs have the option of assigning players as ‘Future Players (FR)’ per their bylaws. There are no limits to the number of players designated this way and they can play at any level within the club, including with the MLS NEXT squad. However it is important to note that a player designated as a FR player can only play in 12 league games. Players who are designated as ‘Primary Players (P)’ are not permitted to play any other competition outside MLS NEXT. Be sure to educate yourself on these rules and know there are potential ‘loopholes’ around the issue. You should also have a conversation with the Head Coach, and potentially the Director of Coaching, over anything that could be considered punitive measures for playing High School and then rejoining in November, including not being rostered for showcases.
In addition to discussing your role within a MLS NEXT program you should also feel comfortable discussing the same concerns with your High School coach. At many top programs it is very difficult to get playing time at the Varsity level as a Freshman or Sophomore. In that instance would it make more sense to play MLS NEXT in those formative years and then transfer over to High School soccer as a Junior and Senior? Like I stated with MLS NEXT clubs wanting to win the same can be said for High School coaches. A High School coach is not going to turn their back on an Academy level player they can utilize for two years. You may sacrifice a leadership opportunity but that may well be worth it if reaping the benefits of two additional years at the highest club level. Not only would I advise you to have conversations with coaches and directors but I would evaluate the level of the High School program. In some instances it is not a feasible option for the highest level player. I would say it is not feasible for a high level player when they play in lower conferences, don’t have high amounts of good players and the coaching staff lack experience and expertise. In other cases there are High Schools that have large percentages of players who play year round, compete at the top end of the state and have coaches who are experienced.
As a player it is imperative that by the time you are making these decisions that you have an idea of what your goal is. Do you want to push to be a professional? Do you truly know what it takes to be a professional and are prepared to sacrifice to get there? If your goal is to play collegiately there are other considerations. MLS NEXT clubs are not the only clubs who send players to colleges. There is no doubt that MLS NEXT is the best platform for male youth soccer players but it is not the only platform. You should research the quality of other programs in your area. You should research what the secondary programs in MLS NEXT clubs can offer. Are there E64 or ECNL clubs that can offer appropriate collegiate showcasing? Although this newsletter is aimed at NJ parents there is a trend occurring in Virginia and the Carolinas where more top, male players are moving to ECNL clubs as this allows them to play HS Soccer and the top clubs in those states want their girls program in the same league. I will state however that in NJ the top boys talent, for the most part, exists within the confines of the MLS NEXT programs.
There is potentially no ‘right’ decision for you but there are factors to weigh up. There are conversations and avenues to explore to make the most informed decision possible for you and your family. The optimal scenario is to have a High School Coach who values your long term development, outside of High School season, and a club coach that values your academic growth and leadership development! That may not be the case in many individual scenarios unfortunately. As the High School season is underway many of these decisions have already been made for the 23/24 season but this newsletter wanted to highlight the difficult dilemmas facing future players and generations. Good luck to all of you with your seasons, whether that be at High School or on the Academy field.