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I’ve marveled at the war that’s been waged on youth sports through our hypercompetitive culture. Everyone wants their kid to play up. As someone who has become increasingly involved with soccer, I was particularly flummoxed when I heard that the club soccer system was discouraging kids from playing high school ball.

In a great recent commentary piece?“U.S. Soccer blundered badly on high school soccer,” Soccer America executive editor Mike Woitalla mulls over the “pay-to-play problem” and asks, “If only there was youth soccer that didn’t charge kids so much money […] Hold on! It does exist, and it’s massive. Nationwide. It’s called high school soccer.”

Woitalla starts by describing the joys of high school competition, but then abruptly says, “None of that seems to impress the U.S. Soccer Federation” (USSF). The USSF, he says, banned high school play in 2012, and the national Development Academies paved the way for the no-high-school soccer decree. He cites high-level people, including several products of good high school teams, involved with this issue in saying that “instead of dismissing high school soccer because it has its flaws, U.S. Soccer could have appreciated its attributes and its potential, regarded it as a partner instead of a nuisance.”

In some ways, I understand the desire for a high-level farm system serving high-level players. But in soccer, like any sport, you improve by, well, playing soccer. Against teams. So to create a whole structure like this for the few dozen players who will star on the world stage seems like a tremendous sacrifice of the many, these many lambs that can get tournament-slaughtered by the few.

I also get that club systems provide a way for coaches to see players: All the kids are in one place. But the competitive club environment might encourage a mercenary attitude of player-first — in a team-oriented game. Players try to “make” “showcase,” without perhaps learning the crucial chemistry at the core of the game — not to mention its value in the larger lessons of sports.

I had to go to a higher authority on this topic, so I called my brother-in-law, Mat Santoro, head men’s coach at University of Southern Indiana and all-around sports philosopher. While college coaches do recruit from clubs, Santoro said, the American game is often over-structured.

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s already an identity crisis in U.S. soccer. We look to Europe… we’re already trying to be something we’re not,” he said. “It’s a country club sport. Urban kids are left out. It’s a vicious irony, because we’re talking about the highest level, but our highest-level athletes often aren’t competing.”

I found this interesting when reflecting on two trips I took over the past few years, one to Costa Rica and one to Columbia. I was amazed by soccer situations I saw. I saw two kids set up goals with book bags on an incline that was almost too steep to walk up – I mean, talk about cultivating game creativity!

“First, parents pay,” Santoro said of many club situations. “Then because they pay, you give them the wrong product — wrong because it’s too structured. What people want is overdone or misdone.”

High school actually can alleviate this somewhat, he said. Like Woitalla, he emphasized the civic engagement and pride accompany high school athletics, and he added that control over season length helps get kids away from over-structured environments. “If anything, to me, high school can helps ground the experience, because they play their sport for a quarter of the year,” Santoro said. “Sometimes, the coaching is accidentally better because it’s not overdone!”

And Santoro raises this provocative point about athletics and schooling. “We’re a leader in combining sports and education, and we’re seen that way in the world,” he said. “If you want to be a patriot, help American soccer be more like American soccer. Let these hard-working tax players have a place for their kids to play.”

Woitalla says USSF probably did club coaches a favor, as they “could now blame the Federation when telling kids to give up high school ball.” Ultimately, Woitalla feels “it has been clear in recent years that U.S. Soccer believes in a one-size-fits-all approach to youth soccer. That’s a perilous approach in a nation as large and diverse as the USA.”

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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One Response to “We have a soccer development system: It’s called high school”

  1. One of my sons was a soccer player, in both high school and a club. The club taught him so much more, and took him so much further than the local high school program could.

    We are close to the border, here, and his club team included players with experience in both the U.S. and Mexico. The entire team was a mix of country, suburban and inner city boys. Both of these factors made for an interesting mix of style/attitude/experience, and some years of success for the team … a great deal more than he got from the high school program.

    Though he did not pursue competitive soccer in college, my son did play recreational/intramural soccer, and continues to enjoy a passion for ‘the beautiful game’ to this day, and connections with his one-time teammates. He still cherishes those years … and special moments such as an accidental meeting in Portland (MLS All-Star Game, 2014) with another alum from his club, Clint Dempsey.

    All-in-all, a GOOD experience for youngsters in western Texas, a chance for a few of them to catch college coaches’ attention and take that next step, and a chance for all of them to play and to grow in a positive and challenging-but-encouraging environment.

    I’m hoping that you may someday have clubs like that in New Jersey.

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