Is High School Still Relevant in U.S. Soccer?

Can future pros play in high school or are academies the future?
by Robert Hay   |   Monday, September 30, 2013

Soccer Americana - column on the intersection of American culture and soccer in media, politics and pop-culture

The debate over college vs. development academy has existed for as long as MLS has existed, the idea that college stunts a professional career by holding back young players from playing top notch competition longer.  MLS obviously values college players – they have a draft for them after all – and players like Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez played college ball before going pro and play for the national team.

However, increasingly the top prospects are going through academies either in the U.S. or overseas, making college soccer less relevant to fans of the professional game.

This debate over relevance is trickling down to the high school level, and similar to the college debate it centers on which system best prepares players for a professional career.  While the IMG Academy experiment has for the most part failed to churn out classes of world class players, it has been replaced by local team academies affiliated with the professional club. 

A perfect example of this is D.C. United, a team whose you academies have churned out a former starter who was sold to a top-flight European team, a starting keeper and national team prospect, a player who could be in the starting XI next season, and future prospects who look like they could be contributors in the near future.  Team academies give pro clubs an opportunity to take local talent and control their development while retaining their rights in case they do reach their full potential.  Europeans clubs have been doing this for years and serve as competition in this area for MLS and NASL teams.

But as the youth academies grow, the entities hurt are the high school teams.  High schools have more limitations on time spent on the pitch as well as varied coaching that conceivably could hinder a player’s development; the standards for hiring a coach is much lower.  Serious athletes and scouts are beginning to turn a blind eye to these teams, and the students who play on them are the ones who suffer.

This was highlighted wonderfully in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times last week by Dave Verso.  The author has 2 high school aged sons that played both academy and high school soccer, and his article expresses concern over the uniformity of the academy system.  Despite his sons playing in 4 different academies, all 4 teams had the same trainings and the same style of play.  Players would be rotated in and out based on equal playing time so his sons would go for games without significant playing time.  Despite this, the academies were considered more essential to a professional career. 

This debate will continue but it looks like the old model of high school soccer as possible preparation for a pro career may be faltering.  However, a new model may be emerging.  DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., has built a powerhouse soccer program in the best few decades (DC United’s Bill Hamid is a graduate). 

Recognizing the emergence of academies and the effect they could have on their own students, the team formed the Football Club of DeMatha, a year round soccer team with 3 teams (U 14/15, U16, and U18).  During the school year the teams will compete as a high school team then spend the next 9 months traveling and playing a club schedule.  Players must be registered students and meet academic requirements, so they will have the best of both worlds.

Whether this new model will succeed is unknown but it is at least an attempt to provide high school students a chance to follow a viable professional path while living a high school life.

(Note: the author is an alumnus of DeMatha)

Robert HAY

Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Arsenal & Bari
By day, saving the world in Washington D.C. By night, morphing into a soccer writer & podcaster. Serie A & MLS fan that writes about the intersection of soccer & American culture & how the two influence each other in politics, media & pop culture.