Here was the dilemma posed by one Florida Knights club boys soccer coach in September.
Play for the Southwest Florida club. Or Play for your high school. But don’t do both.
Or do both, but no promises when a college soccer coach arrives to scout that you won’t be on the bench because you didn’t sign up full-time with the club.
Think about that for a second. It reads as an ultimatum. Pick now, your future may depend on it.
That e-mail by the Knights coach came to me a week ago, after it made the rounds on social media.
Let’s be honest. Many top teen-aged athletes in various sports play for their high schools and club teams.
Basketball has AAU, though AAU is smart enough not to get in the way of high school basketball. Baseball have summer and fall ball but it doesn’t infringe on the spring high school season.
But soccer isn’t programmed the same way. Many club coaches feel that development in soccer takes a different model outside of high school. College scouts aren’t going to high school games, they’re going to club tournaments observing the best players all on one field.
That begs the question, what’s more important: Playing to show off for scouts or representing your community and trying to leave a legacy behind by filling your school’s trophy cabinet.
This idea of having to choose irks a lot of high school coaches. Never before, they say, have they had to deal with this kind of discouragement. What purpose does it serve?
“I never discourage my players from playing high school,” Fort Myers head boys coach Carl Sousa said. “Three of my boys came through that system. They all played high school, club and other sports as well. This is a new phenomenon, especially locally. There are people who are giving ultimatums.”
To be fair, Florida Knights executive director Robert Beltram never said to me that the club is forcing kids to pick. This dilemma posed at the beginning isn’t representative of the entire program. That was one coach coming to one decision on his own, he said.
But after 10 minutes speaking with him, it’s easy to see where he stands on this issue. He told me the US Soccer Federation’s development academies don’t play high school soccer. The US men’s national team’s soccer leaders encourage a 10-month youth season, which doesn’t include high school.
He says there needs to be high-level training, considerable rest, less games and more high-intensity competition. To place high school in the middle only risks player injuries and the chance for burnout or exhaustion.
Which if you read between the lines, he’s encouraging club. And there are actual high school players who chose the offer over high school, Beltram said.
But don’t tell high school coaches that. One high school soccer assistant found the question posed earlier “highly offensive” and said “club gets eight freaking months and now they want to undermine the four-month FHSAA season that begins on Monday Oct. 12? Yeah, I’m pissed!”
Sousa was less angry but still frustrated at the lack of compromise between the two sides. If you take away our players, he told me, you devalue the game and the whole mission of high school soccer.
“They put this pressure on kids,” Sousa said of clubs. “And they tell them to go to these tournaments and that college coaches are looking at them. That may be, but I have had an enormous amount of soccer players who played for me and it’s not the only place you can have success.”
It’s easy to say you’ll get better in club soccer. You have coaches who know the game, who have access to wonderful training tools and games are often against players with better or equal skill.
But in choosing club, you can also lose yourself, too.
You can easily lose the love of playing the game when weeks turn into years of nonstop instruction. A professional player I once covered in high school, Alex Shinsky, told me recently that when he was with IMG Academy as a teenager he worried about where he stood within his program every day.
There was so much pressure to compete that it felt like a job to him. There was so much demand that it became hard to even play at the level you knew you were capable of.
He was at IMG Academy for three years before his training cycle ended, so he had one semester before early enrollment at the University of Maryland. He had one last shot at high school soccer as a senior at West York High in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t want to say I didn’t care as much,” said Shinsky, who’s now with the Arizona United of the USL. “But I could go out and have fun and try things that I would never do at an academy or club. From that standpoint, it was good to be able to go out and enjoy the game and have this pure love for it.”
Isn’t that why we’re playing in the first place?