Home » Blog » Lindsay Barton » Soccer Development Academies: Elite or Elitist?

Over the weekend I posted a link in the @MomsTeam Twitter account to an article in the New York Times titled "High School Players Forced to Choose in Soccer's New Way."  My tweet generated a lot of buzz, and, as I had commented in the past on the way sports talent is developed in this country, I thought it would be a great topic for a blog.

Then, the following Tweet appeared in my timeline from one of MomsTeam's good Twitter friends, Emily Cohen @gobearsemily, which read: "no other sport tells kids where and when they can play. Forcing kids to choose between club and school is wrong ... and misleading."

So I decided that, instead of doing my own blog, I would ask Emily if she would be a guest blogger on this issue and she agreed.  What follows is her take on the Times  story, under the title "Elite or Elitist?"

The United States Soccer Federation's (USSF) recent mandate that ‘elite' soccer players who play for Development Academy teams will not be allowed to play for their high school soccer teams after this season simply frosts me. I've read volumes in the last few weeks, from Soccer America's initial news article and the seemingly unending comments from readers and the soccer experati to The New York Times piece this past Sunday by Sam Borden, that really brought "Soccer's New Way" into the collective consciousness across America.

While my 15-year-old son doesn't play soccer (instead, he's passionate about baseball and plays travel ball as well as high school varsity baseball), he has plenty of friends who do, and some of them play at a very high level. A couple of them, at least, will likely go on to play soccer in college. To me, telling these teenagers that they must choose between their club or their high school soccer team goes against the core of a fundamentally American value: freedom.

The freedom to choose to play with your friends on your high school soccer team, to gain bragging rights against friends on other high school teams and make memories that will last a lifetime should not taken away from you just because a group of men feel that the "United States doesn't measure up to other countries in soccer." Frankly, I am more worried about the "performance gap" in manufacturing, technology, and our economy in general, aren't you?

And speaking of economics, this new approach smacks more of elitism by the USSF than any benefits to the elite athlete. The cost to join a Development Academy team - or any club team, for that matter - is exorbitant. Does the USSF really believe that the only players worthy of wearing a U.S. jersey are those who have the financial resources and family situations to pay for and support a player participating on a Development Academy team? Last I checked, soccer experts were lamenting that not enough kids, in general, play unstructured soccer on their own time and that low-income and urban kids were eschewing soccer for sports such as basketball, football and baseball. Now, all of a sudden, these same experts have taken a U-turn: more organized training and games are the answer. Why? The money, of course. Those less privileged kids can't afford to pay for this elite development academy system, so they're clearly not on their radar. OccupySoccer, anyone?

Aside from taking the freedom to choose away from these youth athletes and the elitist mentality of the academies, I also have a huge problem with the focus on athletics to the detriment, even elimination of, a focus on academics. It's not only misleading, it's misguided. Today, there are significantly more college scholarships available for academic achievement than for athletic achievement. Of the estimated 3,000 young athletes currently participating on U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams, only about 30 - or 1% (here we go with that number again) will end up playing professionally. That's more than 2,900 kids who are going to be misled, told by the USSF, "if you want to be good and go pro, you have to do it OUR way," and then won't have the education - or the resources to get the education - they need to succeed in another career. But the USSF will gladly take your money anyway.

Finally, I'm not sure what to make of the male-only focus of this new mandate. Are the powers-that-be saying that the development of female soccer players in the U.S. is on the right track and no changes need to be made, even though the majority of the players on last year's Women's World Cup runner-up U. S. Women's National Team (USWMT) played on their high school teams? Apparently, the status quo is working for the development of our women soccer players, but not the men. Is the quality of high school coaching - oft-maligned by these so-called soccer experts - fine for women but not for men? Or isn't the women's game important enough for them to want or care to improve?
In the end, I think the path upon which the USSF has set is a slippery slope - and not just for soccer. At what point will other sports - basketball, baseball, football and more - follow suit and tell kids they can't play for their high school if they want to play on an AAU, USSSA, or other elite travel team? In fact, I've heard rumblings that AAU wants to force high-school basketball players to make a similar club-or-high-school decision. What does this portend for the future of high school sports? Will the Friday Night Lights be turned off forever?

Where do you stand on the club versus school debate? Do you agree with Emily? Disagree? Unsure? Share your thoughts by commenting below, or on Facebook or via Twitter (to keep Emily in the loop, add the hashtag #@gobearsemily to your Twitter post) and take the new poll we have posted on our home page (either by clicking on the link or going to the lower right hand corner of the MomsTeam home page under the heading "MomsTeam Asks"). 

March 12, 2012: Update: MomsTeam is pleased to announce that Emily Cohen has now joined our team of bloggers.  This blog, minus the introduction, now also appears under her byline.