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US soccer must fall in line to survive

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati speaks
US Soccer President Sunil Gulati has been a proponent of youth academies in America.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Two and a half years or so ago, I sat in the bleachers beside an under-18 game between the DC United academy and a competitive travel team from Long Island unfolding on a lush college field in Washington.

I was writing about Andy Najar in the context of the rise of Major League Soccer clubs' youth academies. One of United's youth coaches sat beside me and said in hushed tones that they would soon require their players to choose between playing for United and their high school teams. They couldn’t represent both. It would be a waste of United’s resources for a player they invested in as a professional prospect to go off and play at a much lower level a few times a week. This would not be a popular edict, he predicted.

He was quite right.

As of Sept. 4 of this year, the rule the United coach mentioned went into effect for all of the 80 US Soccer Development Academy clubs – 19 of them MLS academies and the other USSF-sanctioned clubs which meet high standards. If you play in the 10-month Academy League, the best youth league in the country, you can no longer play for your high school.

When the high school season kicked off a few weeks ago, the talent drain inevitably became apparent. Most players had wisely picked club over school, future over present. A spate of stories subsequently appeared in newspapers, like the New York Times and Boston Globe, quoting would-be high school players and their coaches who bemoaned their new plight.

The old debate had raged back to the fore. Who is better equipped to develop athletes? High school varsity teams or pro club and elite travel team academies? Should they be mutually exclusive? And do we have to do things like they’re done in the rest of the world?

That this is even still a debate leaves me dumbfounded. Not unlike people who maintain that global warming is merely a theory.

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The view that the old high school mechanism is suitable for raising our future national team is parochial and short-sighted. It’s simply inefficient. High school years are crucial in a soccer player’s development. Good talent should spend that time in a professional environment with competent coaches and playing in elite competition. High school is not that. And to play for your high school is to take good training time away and replace it with below-par repetitions and unchallenging games.

It’s not rocket science. Bring good young players and coaches together and you create an incubator. Every successful country does it this way (Look up: 'La Masía' or 'De Toekomst'). You would be hard pressed to find even two world-class players who didn’t emerge from a professional youth academy.

Some will proffer that the current national teamers mostly emerged from high schools, that they do just fine and that valuable social experiences will be lost.

But an urgent reassessment of priorities is in order. What is it exactly that we’re trying to achieve here? Are we looking to ensure that our sons show the requisite school spirit and continue to stand in good stead with the cheerleaders? That they make the local papers and reflect well on their parents? Or are we trying to raise World Cup winners by improving the national standard of soccer?

Mexico’s youth national teams have blossomed since national Under-17 and Under-20 leagues – not unlike the Development Academy – were established several years ago. In the last year alone, they have won prestigious youth tournaments like Toulon and the Milk Cup, not to mention the Under-17 World Cup. And did I mention that the senior team and its splendid young core are CONCACAF, Pan-American and Olympic champions?

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The best young players were placed under the care of the best youth coaches and faced with the best possible competition. That’s how Belgium's current crop of young stars was raised. That’s how Barcelona churns out one mega prospect after another. The strength lies in the numbers. The broader the base of talent nurtured in the right environment, the better the product will be.

Yes, it’s fun to be named all-met or all-county and break school records and be recognized walking down the hallways. And giving those rubes from Rival High a good beating never gets old.

But surely the creation of a mechanism that enables the US national team to become the kind of world power a country with such an athletic population should be able to produce would make giving all that up worthwhile.

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